John G. Avildsen may not be even close to the household name that Steven Spielberg is, but he certainly should be held in the same esteem given he directed one of the best films in cinema history with ‘Rocky.’ It was his keen sense of direction and leadership that gave that first film the steady presence it needed to flourish with everyone else involved. And now, Mr. Avildsen is no longer with us as he past away from a battle with pancreatic cancer at 81 years of age.

In retrospect, one very interesting anecdote about the making of Rocky was that Avildsen insisted the actors under consideration for different roles read for the part. Well, originally, Academy Award nominee for best actor, Lee J. Cobb, who many may remember as playing the detective in ‘The Exorcist’, was the front-runner to play Mickey. Little did Cobb know that Avildsen was going to require him to actually read for the part. Although Cobb would have none of that, neither would Avildsen and it was Avildsen’s firm stance that led to another actor ultimately getting the part. One has to be very stubborn and have some convictions to not back down to someone who felt they had the acting cache to be immune to the testing process.  In the end, weeding out Cobb gave us the great Burgess Meredeth in the role of Mickey Goldmill. Let’s be real here, could any of us imagine Rocky without the personality and spunk of Burgess?? No way, no how.

Nevertheless, Avildsen moved on from winning the Academy Award for Best Director early in his career to direct the ‘The Karate Kid’ (another major critical success), and later, the very well reviewed drama ‘Lean on Me.’

It should be also noted what the major hook was for Avildsen even agreeing to direct the original Rocky: “On page 3, this guy (Rocky) is talking to his turtles, and I was hooked,” Avildsen remarked. “It was a great character study.” Fancy that, a subtle scene, written by Sylvestor Stallone, cemented the film bringing aboard the right man for the job of directing one of the greatest flicks of all-time. Nuff said!

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