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March 26, 2014

President's Speaker Series at SHSU: Avildsen delivers Oscar-winning talk

Filmmaker stresses importance of writing, speaks about highlights and lowlights of long career in Hollywood

HUNTSVILLE — Oscar-winning director John Avildsen took a Huntsville audience down a laugh-inducing, often fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants career ride Tuesday during the Sam Houston State University President’s Speaker Series.

SHSU President Dana Gibson and public relations professor Peter Roussel interviewed Avildsen after the director held a book signing for “The Films of John G. Avildsen,” co-written by SHSU professor Tom Garrett.

Known for directing “Rocky” and “The Karate Kid” saga among other hit films, Avildsen said his success depended largely on the talent of those around him, specifically writers.

“You have to have a good script,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what gadgets you have. I was blessed with writers who wrote good stories.”

When Sylvester Stallone, who Avildsen twice had turned down for work, approached him with the script for “Rocky,” Avildsen knew he had to do that one.

“(If it wasn’t for “Rocky”) I wouldn’t be here today,” he said. “If I had said, ‘No,’ I would’ve needed to get my head examined. ... I was taken just a few pages into the script.”

The movie, which won a Best Picture Oscar, originally had a different ending. Rocky Balboa was supposed to be carried off by the crowd, but due to the lack of extras and some good music changed that.

“(The ending score) knocked me out,” Avildsen said. “The story was terrific and the performance, but the music is what really works.”

So the iconic ending, where Rocky yells out “like a wounded bull elephant,” was a last-minute change that he had to fight the producers to shoot.

“The Karate Kid” was also supposed to end differently. Rather than Daniel being lifted into the air and looking over to his mentor Mr. (Kesuke) Miyagi, the movie was supposed to conclude in the parking lot outside with a confrontation between the Okinawan karate master and the villain of the movie that eventually became the opening scene for the second movie.

“I wanted to leave the audience at their peak experience,” Avildsen said. “I looked at (the ending that was eventually put in the movie) and said, ‘I can’t top this.’”

Ralph Macchio faced stiff competition when it came time for casting. Macchio was up against fellow unknown actor Robert Downey Jr., who has been in many movies since, including “Iron Man” and “Sherlock Holmes.”

“Ralph had a kind of vulnerability that was crucial,” Avildsen said. “Robert was Iron Man. Both had one major characteristic and that’s why Ralph Macchio got the part.”

The 78-year-old director says he walked into many of the movies that made him famous with a type of blissful ignorance.

He directed “Rocky” but knew nothing about boxing.

“I thought it was a silly thing for people to do,” Avildsen said of boxing.  

He directed “The Karate Kid” and knew nothing of karate. He even directed “8 Seconds” about Lane Frost, a bull rider who was killed while competing, without much knowledge of rodeo.

The thing that helps, he said, is the script.

“The writers can look at a blank page and fill it up. I don’t have that particular talent,” Avildsen said. “When you get a good script, you imagine it in your head. Of course your head doesn’t have a budget, but you want your imagination to get caught up in the script.”

There were movies and actors that didn’t make him too happy, though.

“The Formula,” a flick about the secret formula that turns coal into oil starring Marlon Brando and George C. Scott, flopped. Avildsen said this was because the script was “convoluted” and “didn’t make any sense.”

He wasn’t fond of Scott as a person, but praised his acting skills. Avildsen first met Scott while casting for the film and ate lunch with him.

“He was tossing back boilermakers (whiskey shots with a beer chaser) and going on and on about the war protesters and the gays. I still didn’t get it then,” Avildsen said. “He had a drinking problem that didn’t stay at home. It was a real workout.”

Coming in a close second was Peter Falk, known by many for his role in “Columbo.”

Avildsen said Falk refused to work with any revised script for a movie called “Happy New Year” that was similar to a French film he was fascinated with.

Avildsen praised Brando, Stallone, and Morgan Freeman, an actor Avildsen called a “real gent.”

Tuesday’s event was hosted by the Priority One student public relations firm that has also hosted other notable figures like Dan Rather, Nolan Ryan and Marcus Luttrell.

Avildsen gave some advice to future filmmakers, who he said will have a tough time getting directing jobs.

“Shoot,” Avildsen said, “everyone has a camera in their pocket, so there’s no reason you can’t go out and shoot 2-minute little stories. ... You’ll have a great time, but it takes perseverance to do that.”

“Don’t just talk about it. Do it.”

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