For some reason, John G. Avildsen is one of those filmmakers who has received more criticism (hey there, Burt Reynolds!) than his due.
He directed "Rocky" (1976), but who remembers? Its writer-star, Sylvester Stallone, is generally regarded as its auteur. Prior to that, there were Jack Lemmon in his Oscar-winning turn in "Save the Tiger" (1973) and the charming "W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings" (1975, avec Reynolds).
Since then, Avildsen, who has been inactive of late, has amassed what I think is a varied and fairly impressive filmography of overlooked or forgotten films - "Slow Dancing in the Big City" (1978), with Paul Sorvino in a rare romantic lead; "The Formula" (1980) with Marlon Brando and George C. Scott; the hilarious Belushi-Akyroyd romp "Neighbors" (1981); "Happy New Year" (1987), a remake of a Claude Lelouch French caper with Peter Falk; "Lean on Me" (1989), an early Morgan Freeman title, and, yes, two "Karate Kid" flicks. But nothing since 1999. Nearly 20 years.
But then there were Avildsen's early New York films - three crude, scrappy but atmospheric movies, made between 1970 and 1972, that defy easy pigeon-holing and seem alien by today's less interesting standards. Three unique movies, two of which introduced arguably the best character actors of the 1970s and '80s, Peter Boyle and Allen Garfield, both utterly singular.
The movies? "Joe" (1970) with Boyle. "Cry Uncle" (1971) with Garfield. And "The Stoolie" (1972) with Jackie Mason in a truly revelatory performance as a small-time con man, crook, stool pigeon and unreliable friend. If you don't believe me, check it out. But good luck finding it.
"Joe," which also introduced Susan Sarandon in a supporting role, is a savage comedy about its titular bigot - a film which predated Norman Lear's landmark 1971 series, "All in the Family," by a year. Boyle, who in 1970 also had an uncredited bit as a group-therapy crackpot in Frank Perry's "Diary of a Mad Housewife," is funny/scary as Joe Curran, a true blue-collar nightmare. Just try imagining Archie Bunker with a gun.
"Cry Uncle" is an amusing pseudo-porno about a private dick (get it?) in which Garfield waltzes through several scenes full-frontal and yet, thanks to Avildsen's cleverness, he doesn't seem to have a penis. Critics loved it.
Both Boyle and Garfield would go on to have terrific movie careers in some terrific films, three of which put them together on screen.
In 1972, Boyle and Garfield were on hand to help Robert Redford with his political campaign in Michael Ritchie's prescient "The Candidate"; they were on screen together again a year later in 1973 in Howard Zeiff's masterful farce, "Slither," with Boyle abetting star James Caan and Garfield giving Caan a difficult time; and in 1978, they are two among the ensemble of William Friedkin's "The Brinks Job." Two Avildsen graduates.
It's been rumored that, on the basis of his performance in "Joe," he was William Friedkin's first choice to play Popeye Doyle in "The French Connection" (1971) but that his agent or manager at the time vetoed it and never told Boyle. Gene Hackman, of course, got the role and won an Oscar. I've no idea about the veracity of the reports but Boyle seemingly never came to terms with this lost role/opportunity.
Boyle died in 2006 and, despite the endless reruns of Ray Romano's wonderful series, "Everybody Loves Raymond," he is much missed.
An aside: I interviewed Boyle on the Universal lot when he was preparing for his role in James Goldstone's pirate flick, "Swashbuckler." Boyle was engaging and gossipy and was eager to demonstrate his way with a pirate's cutless, a routine he had been rehearsing that day for Goldstone's film. I never got to ask him about "The French Connection."
Garfield, meanwhile, worked with some of the top director in some of the top films of the era - Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation" and Billy Wilder's "The Front Page" (both released in 1974), Robert Altman's "Nashville" (1975) and Peter Yates' "Mother, Jugs and Speed" (1976), among many others. When his father died, Garfield reverted back to his birth name, Allen Goorwitz, as a tribute, beginning in 1978 for the aforementioned "The Brinks Job," and retained that billing for five years.
He suffered a massive stroke in 2004 and, according to IMDb, has lived in a Motion Picture & Television Fund long-term nursing home ever since.
Note in Passing: "The Comedian," the new Taylor Hackford film with Robert DeNiro as a stand-up comic attempting a comeback in an alien new era, is highly reminiscent of Avildsen's early work. This movie, also based in New York, looks and feels as it might have been made in 1970.