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Rocky and Karate Kid director John G. Avildsen dies at 81

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Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Oscar-winning filmmaker John G. Avildsen, who helped to make Sylvester Stallone a movie star and launch an enduring Hollywood franchise as the director of Rocky, died Friday in Los Angeles of pancreatic cancer. He was 81.

His eldest son, Anthony Avildsen, confirmed the news to the Associated Press. “He was a pretty extraordinary man in my estimation,” he said. “He was super-talented and very driven and very stubborn, and that was to his detriment but also often to his benefit.”

Known for telling stories of underdogs and long shots who persevered and ultimately triumphed, Avildsen won a directing Oscar for Rocky, which starred Stallone as the titular Philadelphia boxer. The 1976 film, which Stallone wrote, also claimed Oscars for best picture and editing.

Though it proved to be a huge hit, Avildsen wasn’t sold on the project at first. “When this script came to me from an old friend … I said I had no interest in boxing, I think boxing’s sort of a dumb thing,” he recalled last year in an interview with the Baltimore Sun. “He pleaded and pleaded, so I finally read the thing. And on the second or third page, he’s talking to his turtles, Cuff and Link. I was charmed by it, and I thought it was an excellent character study and a beautiful love story. And I said yes.”

Rocky would go on to spawn six sequels, including 2015’s Creed, though Avildsen helmed only one of them, 1990’s Rocky V.

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Avildsen’s other directing credits included the three original Karate Kid movies, which starred Ralph Macchio as a bullied teen and Pat Morita as his sage martial arts teacher, as well as Joe, Save the Tiger, The FormulaNeighbors, and Lean on Me. Avildsen is also the subject of the upcoming documentary John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs.

In the wake of Avildsen’s death, the Directors Guild of America released a statement remembering him as a “beloved” and “prolific” director. “Throughout the decades, his rousing portrayals of victory, courage, and emotion captured the hearts of generations of Americans,” the statement added.