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Luke Perry remembers director John Avildsen

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In this March 28, 1977, file photo, John C. Avildsen shows off the Oscar he won for best director for “Rocky,” at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles. Avildsen, who directed “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid,” the hugely successful underdog fables that went on to become Hollywood franchises, has died at age 81. Avildsen’s son Anthony says his father died Friday, June 16, 2017, in Los Angeles from pancreatic cancer. In this March 28, 1977, file photo, John C. Avildsen shows off the Oscar he won for best director for “Rocky,” at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles. Avildsen, who directed “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid,” the hugely successful underdog fables that went on to become Hollywood franchises, has died at age 81. Avildsen’s son Anthony says his father died Friday, June 16, 2017, in Los Angeles from pancreatic cancer. (AP file photo)

He may not have been a household name like Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese, but director John G. Avildsen more than left his mark over the course of 25 feature films, a body of work that includes classic underdog films like “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid.” 

Avildsen died of pancreatic cancer on June 16, 2017, as the finishing touches were being added to Derek Wayne Johnson’s powerful documentary tribute “John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs.” The man who loved to move people through film was about to receive a heavy dose of cinematic love from his peers.

“He wasn’t into self-promotion, John shied away from that,” said actor Luke Perry (“Beverly Hills 90210”), who worked with Avildsen on the 1994 bio-drama “8 Seconds,” a film about late American rodeo legend Lane Frost.

“Directors like Scorsese took on a mystique. People liked to talk about them and put them in the forefront,” Perry continues. “John felt his place was behind the camera. Or at home. He was very much a stay-at-home guy. That’s where he was happy.” 

Perry appears prominently in Johnson’s documentary, alongside Matthew McConaughey, Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Ralph Macchio, Leonard Maltin, Carl Weathers, and others, in discussing the real John G. Avildsen.

Avildsen appeared mild-mannered and soft-spoken to most outsiders, but Perry says that was not always the case.

“John was not always mild-mannered. He and I had some pretty heated exchanges throughout the course of ‘8 Seconds.’ He was a really cerebral guy who could articulate to you what he was thinking. I think that’s why his movies were so successful. He knew how to translate what he was thinking into film.”

Perry demonstrates how Avildsens’s sometimes unorthodox technique could pop an actor’s inflated ego.

“During the first week of filming, I was halfway through a scene and John would yell ‘Cut!’ I would ask if did something wrong. John would say ‘No. That’s just all I’m going to use from that scene.’ I was like ‘John, you’ve got to let me get all the way through it.’ He said ‘But I’m not going to use the end of it – just the first part.’

Perry laughed when he recalled trying to convince the director to at least wait until he could complete the scripted dialogue before abruptly ending the scene.

“You want to say ‘But I’m so compelling, how could you cut it?’ John would say ‘I’ll be in a different angle by then. Be compelling in that.’ That’s a hard thing for an actor to hear.”

Johnson’s documentary features scenes of Avlidsen at work on the set of “Rocky,” “The Karate Kid” and “Joe,” where the viewer is offered the privilege of seeing the man interact with actors and crew, and translating his thoughts into celluloid.

Part of Avildsen’s genius was his ability to see the finished film in his mind prior to filming, according to Perry.

“Before John was a director, he was an editor of films,” Perry told me. “He knew specifically what he wanted down to the overall look of the film and even the camera angles to use when shooting.”

Avildsen’s films crossed all genres – from the 1970 counterculture hits ‘Guess What We Learned in School Today’ and ‘Joe’ to 1989’s ‘Lean on Me’ starring Morgan Freeman and based on the real-life story of inner-city high school principal Joe Louis Clark.

“He was prolific and a lot of directors get there by bypassing versatility. Not John,” Perry says. “‘Rocky’ and ‘The Karate Kid’ were enormously successful financially, but they were also really well-done. You don’t get to ‘Rocky 5’ unless the first one was really good.”

(“John G. Avildsen: King of The Underdogs” can be seen now on Chassy.com, iTunes and all digital platforms. Luke Perry stars as Fred Andrews in the teen drama “Riverdale” which is scheduled to return for a second season, beginning October 11 on the CW.)

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