His movies include Guess What We Learned in School (1968), Cry Uncle! (1970), Joe (1970), Rocky (1976) and Rocky V (1990) with Sylvester Stallone, and The Karate Kid (1984), with Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita. He also directed the acclaimed Save the Tiger (1973), starring Jack Lemmon, Lean on Me (1989), starring Morgan Freeman as the no-nonsense high school principal Joe Clark; The Power of One (1992) and 8 Seconds (1994), starring Luke Perry. He has also directed The Formula (1980) starring George C. Scott & Marlon Brando and For Keeps (1988) starring Molly Ringwald. A recurring theme in many of Avildsen's movies is the triumph of an underdog character over adversity.
Avildsen won an Academy Award for directing Rocky.
His most recent work was Dancing into the Future (2006) as director. However, Avildsen plans to make a return as a director in 161 & River (2008). The film, thematically similar to previous Avildsen work, is a baseball-themed underdog story.