May 09, 1977 12:00 PM

There were none of the grouchy faces you ordinarily associate with life,” says John Avildsen. “It was terrific—in spite of the smell of elephant dung. I’d recommend it to anyone.”

The 41-year-old Oscar-winning director (Rocky) was enthusing about his debut as a clown at the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey circus. On the tan-bark at Madison Square Garden Avildsen broke balloons, boxed with a midget and scampered through a routine in which his belt exploded. “The last time I wore makeup was in 1959 with the Army,” says Avildsen. “I wasn’t competing with the Wacs—I was an actor in a show called Bullfight.”

The director was talked into the clown caper by his friend John Culhane, a writer and circus buff, who has done it seven times in the past four years. As a tyro in baggy pants and red, white and black makeup, Avildsen was exposed to a few more hazards than he had bargained for. A tiger swiped a stool from under him, and he was almost stomped by a careless elephant.

The strenuous routines were no problem for the New York City-born Avildsen, who keeps in shape by working out in a gym a half hour every morning. Barraging the professional clowns with questions, he also took home movies of some of the acts. One of his pratfalls even drew praise from a circus veteran. “Now,” Avildsen joked, “at least I know I have something I can fall back on.”

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