John G Avildsen, Oscar-winning director of 'Rocky', dies at 81

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Variety reports that John G. Avildsen, an Oscar-winning director with a celebrated knack for capturing the stories of beloved underdogs, has died.

His eldest son, Anthony, told the Los Angeles Times his father died of pancreatic cancer.

Avildsen started in the business as a cinematographer, lensing seven films from the mid-'60s to the early '70s, including his feature directorial debut "Turn on to Love" (1969) and subsequent helming efforts "Guess What We Learned in School Today", "Joe", "Cry Uncle", "Okay Bill" and "The Stoolie" (1972), starring Jackie Mason.

It's almost impossible to describe just how important John G. Avildsen has been to the world of cinema.

Avildsen returned to the Rocky franchise to direct the critically panned Rocky V (1990) about a protege who turns on Rocky.

"My friend sent me this [Rocky] script and got me to read it", Avildsen told the Birmingham, Ala., News in 2000. When he was offered the director's chair for Rocky Part II, though, Avildsen turned it down; he later called that decision "one of my greatest mistakes".

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In a 1992 interview, Avildsen outlined his view of filmmaking: "I don't see my films as following any strict formula — even if many of them do have a similar theme. His directing, his passion, his toughness and his heart — a great heart — is what made "Rocky" the film it became", Stallone wrote in a statement.

Avildsen's professional stumbles included tangling with stars John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd on the comedy Neighbors (1981), then made the crass male-stripper movie A Night in Heaven (1983). Thanks for so much John G. Avildsen. The three Oscar nominations for "Save the Tiger" and the win for Lemmon secured Avildsen's place on the list of go-to directors.

Other now-classic films include The Karate Kid and Lean on Me.

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

Mr Avildsen won best director for Rocky at the 1977 Academy Awards.