Friday, June 16, 2017

Good-bye to John G. Avildsen, who scored a knockout by directing Rocky

It’s hail and farewell to John G. Avildsen, the Oscar-winning director of Rocky, who passed away Friday in Los Angeles.
To be sure, Avildsen had several other notable films on his resume — including  Joe (1970), his discomfortingly prescient drama (propelled by Peter Boyle’s career-launching lead performance) about the murderous rage of the so-called Silent Majority; Save the Tiger (1973), a powerful portrait of a morally compromised businessman, for which Jack Lemmon received his own Oscar as Best Actor; and, of course, all three of the original Karate Kid movies.
But Rocky is the career-highlight achievement most likely to give Avildsen a fair shot at immortality. More than four decades after the scrappy small-budget 1976 movie about a never-made-it boxer came from out of nowhere to score Oscar gold, top box-office charts and rouse audiences to full-throated cheers, it continues to entertain movie fans – and influence moviemakers – with the undiminished force of an enduring pop-culture phenomenon.

To fully appreciate its vast and enduring popularity, consider this: A decade or so ago, Sylvester Stallone told me about an amazing image he remembered from early news coverage of the Iraq War. “I saw some Iraqi in some town hold up a flag with Rocky on it,” he said. “And I thought, ‘You gotta be kidding me! Where did he have this flag for the past 20 years? Under his bed?’
“I mean, what was he thinking? ‘Oh, yeah, the day they come here to free us, I’m gonna pull out my Rocky flag!’?”
When I spoke with Avildsen back in 2014 — shortly before a Texas appearance to promote The Films of John G.Avildsen: Rocky, The Karate Kid and Other Underdogs I related this anecdote to the director. He was amused — but not surprised.
“That’s another indication,” Avildsen said, “of just how pervasive that movie’s been around the world.”
Here are some other highlights from our 2014 conversation.
It never ceases to amaze me that so many people misremember the ending of Rocky – that they actually think Rocky Balboa won the big fight. Back in the 1980s and ‘90s, I would occasionally get phone calls at The Houston Post from people who wanted me to settle bar bets regarding whether Rocky or Apollo Creed won.
That’s funny. But, really, I never thought it was important whether they knew it or not. And if they thought it was important, they missed the point.
When I interviewed Sylvester Stallone a few years back, he indicated that while you were making Rocky, expectations weren’t very high for the film.
We thought it was going to be on the bottom half of a double bill of a drive-in in Arkansas. There was no expectation of what it became.
Do you think you could get it green-lit in today’s blockbuster-obsessed Hollywood?
It would depend whether George Clooney were going to play Rocky. I mean, seriously, it all boils down to who’s going to play the guy. The people who financed Rocky had no idea who Sylvester Stallone was. And they were shown Lords of Flatbush – a terrific movie, and Sylvester was very good in it. They saw it, and they said, “OK,” and they okayed it.
So now the movie’s being made, and they look at the first dailies. And they say, “So, where’s Stallone?” And I say, “That guy’s Stallone.” And they say, “No, Stallone is a blond.” See, they saw Lords of Flatbush – and they thought Perry King was Stallone. They said yes to Perry King. That gives you some idea how well everything is organized in life.
Do you still re-watch Rocky from time to time?
Oh, if I come across it while I’m channel-surfing and, you know, if nothing else is on, I might. But I don’t go out of my way. [Laughs] I’ve already seen it a few times.
Well, you already know how it ends, right?
It wasn’t supposed to end that way, though.
Originally, it was written where the crowd carries Apollo out, and the crowd carries Rocky out. And as Rocky’s going by Adrian, who’s at the end of the aisle, he leans down and pulls her up and they go out on everybody’s shoulders. That’s how it was written, and that’s how we shot it with Apollo being carried out.
But then the assistant director came to me and said, “We don’t have enough extras to carry out Rocky.” And Sylvester heard this, and he said, “Well, you know, Rocky didn’t win, so maybe nobody carries him out. Maybe he just walks down the aisle, and he sees Adrian, and they hold hands and they walk off.” And I said, “Gee, that sounds pretty poetic. Let’s do that.” So we did do that. And if you remember, the original poster had the boy and the girl walking away from the camera.
So what made you decide to change that ending?
Well, I’m cutting the thing together, we’re almost done, and (composer) Bill Conti brings me the last cue, the last piece of music for the movie. And I was knocked out by it. I said, “Boy, that is absolutely sensational. But I don’t have any footage to go with that. I’ve got this boy and girl walking away like they’re going to a funeral. And this music is not that.” So what I think we ought to do is, we keep Rocky in the ring, and have (Adrian) battle her way through the crowd. He’s bellowing: “Adrian! Adrian!” And she gets there, and they clinch, and it’s “I love you,” and we’re out.
Well, nobody wanted to hear about that. Because, you know, if they hear that we’re reshooting, people will think you’ve got a turkey. So I played this music and cut the film that I had, and then I told (the producers), “Instead of seeing this, imaging her battling her way through the crowd to get to the man she loves.” And they said, “Well, OK, you have half a day.”
These are the same producers who are about to start shooting on New York, New York, a Marty Scorsese picture with DeNiro and Liza Minnelli. And Marty’s camera package was sitting in their office. So we borrowed it – unbeknownst to Marty, I think. That’s what we shot that ending with.
If we didn’t have that ending, and we didn’t have Bill Conti’s music – I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.

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