OK, it's pop quiz time: Who won the 1976 best director Oscar for "Rocky"?
If you said Sylvester Stallone, give yourself a rabbit punch.If you said John G. Avildsen, you win the Golden Glove Award for Movie Trivia.
Stallone didn't start directing his films until "Rocky II," and Avildsen says he's sorry he didn't take it when it was offered to him.
"I was invited to do `Rocky II,' but I felt the script didn't utilize the characters as much as it might have," Avildsen said by telephone from his Los Angeles offices. "So I chose not to do it - regretfully. If I had it to do over again, I think I would have done it and tried to make it better."
At the moment, however, Avildsen is editing the third in his own hugely popular movie series - "The Karate Kid." He's also readying a sequel to "Joe," a movie he directed 19 years ago. And, of course, he's basking in the success of his latest film "Lean on Me."
The latter, which is currently No. 4 on the box office charts in its third week of release (it was No. 1 for its first two weeks in theaters), has earned $20 million to date. It's what is termed an "audience picture" as opposed to one that appeals to critics.
In fact, a number of prominent critics have raked "Lean on Me" over the coals, largely for its portrayal of real-life New Jersey high school principal Joe Clark as a bully who cleans up his school by using hard-line tactics, carrying a baseball bat and bullhorn for emphasis.
But Avildsen bristles when it is suggested that Clark is a rather unappealing character in the film.
"If you are a student at East Side High School and you want to spend your time profitably, then Joe Clark is a nice guy. But not if you're a drug dealer or someone who doesn't want to face up to certain realities of the blight on urban education.
"He's an alarmist, like Thomas Paine or Paul Revere, and what he's alarmed over is the education that blacks and Hispanics are getting, or not getting."
Avildsen admitted that Clark, in real life and in the movie, "steps on a lot of toes and is not as diplomatic and statesmanlike as he might be. And he might be too absorbed with his own personality. But what he does more and better than anybody else, at least in the Paterson (N.J.) school system, is give kids hope and self-respect, which they've never had before. He gives them a belief that they can survive and prosper, and that is unique.
"I'm afraid that in most inner-city schools, despair and crime and drugs are the order of the day."
The director said he is very happy with the film, and with the performance of Morgan Freeman as Clark. Freeman was Avild-sen's first choice, but he wasn't the first choice of Warner Bros. "I had seen (Freeman's Oscar-nominated performance) in `Street Smart,' but because he was an unknown the studio was anxious to see if a Sidney Poitier was interested. He was not. He said he felt Joe Clark was a fascist, which is sort of ironic since Sidney's been playing FBI agents recently (in `Shoot to Kill' and `Little Nikita').
"After awhile (Warner Bros.) saw the wisdom of Morgan Freeman."
"Lean on Me" was actually made in the school where Clark's story took place, where he remained as principal until recently. "We shot at the school while it was in session. I could imagine no other place to film it.
"The studio wanted to do it in Chicago because it was cheaper, which I thought was a horrendous idea. Then they wanted to do it in New York, so it wouldn't cost so much to go to Paterson every day. So we started looking around at New York schools, and I was astounded at how terrible they were."
Avildsen said he is expecting to begin work soon on a sequel to his controversial 1970 film "Joe," which starred Peter Boyle as a belligerent hardhat bigot who meets a white-collar businessman (Dennis Patrick) in a bar, the latter confessing he has just murdered his daughter's hippie boyfriend. The film ends with the unlikely duo killing a houseful of zonked-out hippies.
Boyle and Patrick would repeat their roles in the sequel, Avildsen said. "The story has Joe getting out of prison 20 years later, and he has a half-black grandchild. He's changed in some ways and in some ways hasn't changed, but blood is thicker than water."
At the moment Avildsen is editing "The Karate Kid, Part III," which is scheduled for release June 23. And it's not lost on him that his film is coming out in the midst of a summer glut of major sequels. "It is sort of sad that we can't come up with anything new. I'm sure this last decade will go down in history books as the decade of sequels. It would seem the well has gone dry.
"But the other way of looking at it is that when people want to see more of a certain story and certain characters, that's not necessarily bad. I grew up on serials at Saturday matinees, and we went back to them every week."
Avildsen said "Karate Kid III" begins immediately at the end of "Karate Kid II." "Daniel and Miyagi (Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita) arrive back in L.A. from Okinawa, and they split up. That's the problem we have in this one."
The resemblances between the "Karate Kid" movies and "Rocky" are not lost on Avildsen, but he shrugs off critics' complaints: "I remember when I read (the reviews), I figured they would call it `The KaRocky Kid,' but I suppose that's what a lot of critics do. I think it's sort of silly because the average moviegoer doesn't know or care who made the movie.
"And the only thing that counts is whether you enjoy it or not. Whether it's like another movie I don't think is a factor. And whether somebody else made it should have no bearing on whether it's good or not.
"If somebody looks at a van Gogh he doesn't say, `Gee, it's a lot like the others.' "