Avildsen became a well-known Director in the 1970s. After starting out as an assistant Director on films by Arthur Penn and Otto Preminger, John Avildsen received his first success with the low budget feature Joe (1970) which received critical acclaim for star Peter Boyle and moderate box office Business.
His other films include Cry Uncle! (1971), Neighbors (1981), The Karate Kid (1984), The Karate Kid Part II (1986), The Karate Kid Part III (1989) and 8 Seconds (1994). He also directed the drama Lean On me, starring Morgan Freeman.
Avildsen was the original Director for both Serpico (1973) and Saturday Night Fever (1977), but was fired over disputes with producers Martin Bregman and Robert Stigwood, respectively.
Avildsen's greatest success was Rocky (1976), which he directed working in conjunction with Writer and star Sylvester Stallone. The film was a major critical and commercial success, becoming the highest-grossing film of 1976 and garnering ten Academy Award nominations and winning three, including Best Picture and Best Director. He later returned to direct what was expected to be the series' then-final installment, Rocky V (1990). (Later installments were released in 2006 and 2015).
He directed the mystery-drama The Formula (1980), starring Marlon Brando and George C. Scott.
Avildsen's first wife was Marie Olga Maturevich (Melissa McCall). After they divorced, he married Actress Tracy Brooks Swope in 1987; they divorced in 2003. He had four children. His estranged son Ash (born November 5, 1981), founded Sumerian Records. Another son, Jonathan Avildsen, appeared in the films The Karate Kid Part III and Rocky V. His eldest son was named Anthony and he had a daughter, Bridget.
His last-ever direction was the 1999 film Inferno, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Avildsen died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on June 16, 2017. He was 81. The cause of his death was pancreatic cancer, according to his son, Anthony Avildsen.