John G. Avildsen, who directed Rocky and The Karate Kid—two dark-horse, underdog favorites that went on to become Hollywood franchises—died Friday in Los Angeles at age 81. Anthony Avildsen said his father died from pancreatic cancer and called him "a pretty extraordinary man in my estimation." Rocky was a huge success. It won Oscars for best picture, director (Avildsen), and editing and was nominated for seven others. Rocky was a chance venture for Avildsen, reports the AP. Sylvester Stallone, then unknown, had written the script and sought Avildsen to direct it, but Avildsen was already working on another film. Suddenly the production company ran out of money and that film was canceled. A friend sent Avildsen the Rocky script.
"On page 3, 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 $1 million, 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," he 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 that Rocky would die. During the shooting the producers decided Rocky had to live. "You don't kill off your corporate assets," Avildsen commented. Read much more on his life and work here. (Read more obituary stories.)