While John Avildsen is being memorialized for his Best Picture winning film Rocky as well as The Karate Kid, Lean on Me and others, it isn’t all about film credits. Here, John Gray, who directed the film White Irish Drinkers and Glimmer, and helmed episodes of series including Grimm and The Family, recounts an act of generosity shown him by the filmmaker that made for an indelible memory in a young filmmaker’s life
Another sad loss for our business. Here’s my John Avildsen story: In 1979, I had been out of high school for a few years, knew I wasn’t going to college, and had made a few very small films. I was totally, completely, and passionately committed to being a filmmaker, but had no idea how to go about doing it professionally. I knew absolutely no one in the business, and was existing in a vacuum. I felt what I really needed was to connect with a working director to help me figure out where I was and how to proceed.
I made a list of directors I admired, and then I went through the Manhattan phone book, hoping some or at least one of them lived in New York. I found John Avildsen, who had recently won the Oscar for Rocky, listed on East 79th St. I wrote him a letter, explaining my ambitions, and my desire for an established director to look at my work and give me some advice and guidance. I made it clear I wasn’t looking for him to give me a job; just advice. A few weeks later I got a letter back from his assistant, who wrote that Avildsen was currently out of the country shooting The Formula with Marlon Brando, but if I contacted them again in six months, she would arrange a meeting. I dutifully marked my calendar, and six months later, to the day, I wrote another letter.
To my amazement, his assistant wrote back immediately and gave me a date and time for a meeting, AND asked me to send one of my films over for him to look at before I met with him. Not trusting (or able to afford) any other method, I got on the subway from Brooklyn and personally delivered a 16mm print (remember those?) to his doorman the day I got the letter. A week or so later I went to meet him at his apartment, where he was also cutting The Formula. I was so nervous I kept my hands in my pockets because they were shaking so much. While I was waiting for him, I stared at his Oscar, which sat, of course, on his fireplace mantel. Even though I was this awkward 20-year-old pimply faced kid, with all the social graces of Stanley Kowalski, he greeted me warmly and spoke to me at length about my film, my potential career, and the movie business in general.
He was incredibly kind to me, and wise, and spent a lot of time really exploring how someone like me could get a foothold in the business. Looking back on it now, I am especially amazed at how he took the time to have this conversation, to intervene in my life even though I was a total stranger who had made an out-of-the-blue request to meet, at a time when he had just come off of an Oscar-winning movie and was in the midst of post-production on a huge studio movie. That generosity was, and still is, in my mind, stunning. He was encouraging and inspiring and down to earth and made me feel that what I was striving for might just be possible. And to the extent that I have ever been able to pay anything forward, it’s because of this meeting with him all those years ago, for which I will be forever grateful. RIP.