(Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SBIFF)

Variety reports that John G. Avildsen, an Oscar-winning director with a celebrated knack for capturing the stories of beloved underdogs, has died. Avildsen—whose best-known films include Rocky and the first three installments of The Karate Kid franchise—was 81.

Avildsen’s early films arrived at a time when America was struggling with the growing counterculture of the 1970s; his first major hit, the Peter Boyle-starring vigilante feature Joe, becoming a lightning rod with its depiction of a charismatic, violent “everyman” with a lethal hatred of hippies. (The film reportedly inspired the softer-edged bigots in shows like Norman Lear’s All In The Family, and the positive reaction to the character by moviegoers who identified with Joe, instead of being reviled by him, caused Boyle to renounce violent roles.) Avildsen followed Joe with the 1973 morality play Save The Tiger, which earned Jack Lemmon an Academy Award for his depiction of a desperate, ethically tortured businessman.

Avildsen’s biggest hit came in 1976, when he was brought on to direct relatively unknown actor/screenwriter Sylvester Stallone in Rocky. Along with producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, Avildsen insisted that Talia Shire take the pivotal role of Adrian, cementing the movie’s legendary cast. His work was ultimately well-rewarded; the film was a box office smash, and earned 10 Oscar nominations, including wins for Best Picture, Best Film Editing, and a Best Director statue for Avildsen himself. When he was offered the director’s chair for Rocky Part II, though, Avildsen turned it down; he later called that decision “one of my greatest mistakes.” (He would return to the franchise in 1990, for the poorly received Rocky V.)

Avildsen spent the next decade working with some of Hollywood’s biggest names, although rarely to much success. Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, George C. Scott, and Marlon Brando all passed in front of Avildsen’s camera over the next few years, but films like Neighbors, The Formula, and Slow Dancing In The Big City failed to attract either critical love or box office success. The director wouldn’t have another big score until 1984, when he brought another classic of the have-nots-beat-haves genre into the world, in the form of The Karate Kid. This time, when the chance to stay on for a massively lucrative film franchise presented itself, Avildsen took it, directing The Karate Kid Part II and Part III as well.

Avildsen’s career slowed down in the ’90s; beyond a few films, like the 1994 rodeo movie 8 Seconds, his name rarely appeared in movie credits. In recent years, though, interest has reignited in the man who launched two of the world’s biggest sports-film franchises, and a documentary and book, John G. Avildsen: King Of The Underdogs—the former featuring interviews with Stallone, Ralph Macchio, Martin Scorsese, Jerry Weintraub, and Burt Reynolds—arrived earlier this year.