'Rocky' director John Avildsen reflects on career ahead of Chesapeake Film Festival honor

Director John G. Avildsen will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Chesapeake Film Festival this weekend.

More than a decade has passed since director John G. Avildsen saw one of his feature films released in theaters, but his body of work is such that he's far from forgotten. This is, after all, the man who brought "Rocky" to the screen (and won an Oscar for it), who turned a one-legged martial-arts stance into a rite of passage in "The Karate Kid," who made a hero of a tough-love educator in "Lean On Me."

And if Hollywood comes calling again, he's ready. Directing movies "is the most fun in the world," says Avildsen, 80, who will be in Easton this weekend to accept the inaugural Chesapeake Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award. "I have two or three scripts now that I'm peddling and hope to get made. Hope springs eternal."


We asked Avildsen, who is the subject of a documentary, "John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs," being screened at the festival tonight, to reflect on some of his most notable films:

"Joe" (1970) Peter Boyle stars as a right-wing construction worker who goes on a murderous rampage at a hippie commune. "It was a great character study, really explored the thing," Avildsen said. "There was a screening of 'Joe' a year or two ago. And it resonated with the audience greatly. When [Donald] Trump showed up [on the political scene], I said, 'Joe lives!'"


"Rocky" (1976) You might have heard of this film. It's about a boxer. "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 said. "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."

Avildsen passed on II, III and IV, but returned for "Rocky V" (1990) "Sylvester [Stallone] wrote a beautiful script," Avildsen said. "And in the end, after having this catastrophic fight with Tommy Gunn, he is on his way to the hospital with his head in Adrian's lap, and he dies. The last scene of the movie is, Adrian comes out of the hospital and the world's press is assembled, and she announces Rocky's death and says, 'But as long as people believe in themselves, Rocky's spirit will live forever.' And I thought that was a terrific way to end the series."

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The studio had other ideas, however, and the ending was changed. "They said, 'People like this don't die. Batman doesn't die. James Bond doesn't die. Superman doesn't die. So Rocky didn't die. But the movie did."

"The Karate Kid" (1984) Ralph Macchio plays a bullied teenager who learns to fight back the right way, thanks to Pat Morita's ever-patient Mr. Miyagi. "Mr. Miyagi was the ideal surrogate father that everybody wished they had. He was wise, he was generous, he was funny. He was a fairy godmother. And Pat Morita brought him to life, he was ideal. Who could be better?"

"Lean On Me" (1989) Morgan Freeman is Joe Clark, real-life principal of an inner-city school whose unconventional methods aren't always approved by the local school board. "I had just seen Morgan in 'Street Smarts,' where he played a pimp, really a horrible character. I thought he was real. I was very impressed with his talent, so I figured, why not?"

If you go


The Chesapeake Film Festival runs through Sunday at four venues in Easton, primarily at the Avalon Theatre, 40 E. Dover St. Individual tickets are $8-$10, with all-access passes priced at $85-$95. The presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award is set for 6 tonight at the Avalon, and includes a screening of "John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs" and a post-film Q&A with Avildsen and the film's director, Derek Wayne Johnson, moderated by Chris Kaltenbach of The Baltimore Sun.