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Rocky and Karate Kid director John Avildsen dies

John Avildsen, who directed Rocky and The Karate Kid, two dark-horse underdog fables that went on to become Hollywood franchises, has died at 81.

Avildsen's son Anthony said his father died on Friday in Los Angeles from pancreatic cancer.

"He was a pretty extraordinary man in my estimation. He was super talented and very driven and very stubborn and that was to his detriment but also often to his benefit," he said.

The Directors Guild of America paid tribute to Alvidsen, saying: "Throughout the decades, his rousing portrayals of victory, courage and emotion captured the hearts of generations of Americans."

Avildsen took a chance on Rocky, written by and starring the then-unknown Sylvester Stallone as a struggling boxer.

But the 1976 film became a phenomenon that won Oscars for best picture as well as for Avildsen as director and editing, and was nominated for seven others.

Legendary director Frank Capra loved it, telling The New York Times in 1977: "When I saw it, I said, 'Boy, that's a picture I wish I had made'. "

For his part, Avildsen said Capra, who also championed underdogs on film, was his favourite director.

Stallone had written the script and wanted Avildsen to direct it, but Avildsen was already working on another film, but suddenly the production company ran out of money and that film was cancelled.

A friend sent Avildsen the Rocky script.

"On page three, this guy (Rocky) is talking to his turtles, and I was hooked," Avildsen remarked.

"It was a great character study."

Avildsen agreed to direct Rocky even though he knew nothing about boxing.

The film was shot on a tight budget, less than one million dollars, and it was completed in 28 days.

"The first time I showed it to 40 or 50 friends, they all freaked out, so that was encouraging," Avildsen recalled.

"But I guess when I saw the lines around the block, it began to take on a reality."

Five sequels followed, but Avildsen turned them down until the fourth, Rocky V, in 1990.

He said he considered it a good script and liked the fact that Rocky was slated to die.

But during the shooting the producers decided Rocky had to live.

"You don't kill off your corporate assets," Avildsen commented.

The fifth sequel, Rocky Balboa, came out in 2006.

The Karate Kid was another surprise hit in 1984, telling the story of a bullied teenager played by Ralph Macchio who learns about self-confidence through the study of karate with the help of a Japanese handyman (Noryuki "Pat" Morita).

Released in the summer of 1984, The Karate Kid attracted millions of youngsters and brought Morita, a veteran performer best known for his TV roles, an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor.

"As soon as the producers saw the business it was doing, they wanted to do it again," Avildsen said in a 1986 interview.

"I was very apprehensive. I didn't want to do a sequel because this was a very tough act to follow."

But he relented and directed both The Karate Kid, Part II in 1986 and The Karate Kid, Part III in 1989. The franchise was revived in 2010 with a hit remake directed by Harald Zwart.

Avildsen came up the hard way in films, starting with a long apprenticeship as assistant director, then moved up to production manager, cinematographer and editor.

He directed a few small films and then broke through with Joe (1970), in which Peter Boyle portrayed a hard-hat bigot at odds with the emerging hippie youth culture.

"My hope as a film-maker is to make people feel a little differently about something when they leave the theatre," Avildsen told the Los Angeles Times in 1971.

After Joe, Avildsen directed Save The Tiger (1973) starring Jack Lemmon as a burned-out dress manufacturer. Lemmon won the Oscar as best actor while Jack Gilford received a supporting-actor nomination.

Avildsen directed other major stars: Burt Reynolds in WW And The Dixie Dancekings (1975); George C Scott and Marlon Brando in The Formula (1980); Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in Neighbours (1981); and Morgan Freeman in Lean On Me (1989).

He had been hired to direct Saturday Night Fever after his success with Rocky, but was let go amid differences over his desire to make the story more upbeat than the producers had in mind.

"It's better not to be doing something you don't want to do," Avildsen told the Los Angeles Times after he left the project.

He is survived by his sons Jonathan, Ashley and Anthony, and daughter Bridget.

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