One of Mr. Avildsen’s earlier films, “Save the Tiger,” a 1973 drama, earned Jack Lemmon the Oscar for best actor. And Mr. Avildsen’s 1982 short documentary “Traveling Hopefully” was nominated for an Academy Award.

“The Karate Kid,” which had its premiere in 1984, is the story of a teenager who outwits bullies and becomes a karate champion with the help of his martial arts mentor. Like “Rocky,” it culminates in an all-out fight scene.

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John Avildsen, left, with Noriyuki “Pat” Morita on location for the “Karate Kid Part II” in 1985.

Credit
Columbia Pictures

In fact, when Mr. Avildsen first read the script for “The Karate Kid,” he dubbed it “The KaRocky Kid,” according to The New York Times, because of its similarities to “Rocky.” Mr. Avildsen went on to direct the second and third “Karate Kid” movies.

The acclaimed 1989 film “Lean on Me” was Mr. Avildsen’s first film based on a real person. It was about Joe Clark, a New Jersey high school principal who worked to bring order and educational reform to his school.

“My thoughts were, whether they’re real or fictional, you’ve got to keep the people awake in the theater and try to make the characters as dramatic and effective as possible,” he told The New York Times in 1989.

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John Avildsen at a screening of “John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs” in February.

Credit
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SBIFF

But, he said, he wished that movie had been an even bigger hit.

“I wish more white people would go see it,” he said. “I think it’s as successful as it is because people find the character an admirable one, and they’re pulling for him. They know that his intentions are correct and what he wants, he wants with great passion.”

John Guilbert Avildsen was born on Dec. 21, 1935, in Oak Park, Ill. He started his ascent in the film industry working with directors like Arthur Penn, on “Mickey One” (1965), and Otto Preminger, on “Hurry Sundown” (1967).

Other films Mr. Avildsen directed included “Joe” (1970), “For Keeps” (1988) and “Rocky V” (1990).

The title of a new documentary about Mr. Avildsen tips its hat to his reputation for telling rags-to-riches tales. Highlighting interviews with Mr. Stallone, the director Martin Scorsese and the “Karate Kid” star Ralph Macchio, it’s called: “John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs.”

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