James Avery: Star whose role as Uncle Phil in the American sitcom 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air' won him fans worldwide

 

The American sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air brought international fame to James Avery as the wealthy Uncle Phil, who welcomes into his huge, ornate mansion his nephew – played by the real-life rapper Will Smith – when the streetwise teenager runs into trouble in a tough West Philadelphia neighbourhood.

After a decade of playing bit parts in films and on television, the role of Philip Banks – a lawyer and, later, a judge – brought Avery to the attention of a young audience watching a hip comedy with the award-winning music producer Quincy Jones as an executive producer. In Britain, it was screened in BBC Two's DEF II strand of youth programmes.

Smith – the rapper kept his real name as the character – moves into the mansion in Los Angeles's affluent Bel-Air district after getting into a fight. His uncle lives there with his snobbish wife, Vivian (Janet Hubert), and three children, Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro), Hilary (Karyn Parsons) and Ashley (Tatyana M Ali). The culture clash from which the comedy emerged was emphasised by the presence of the Banks's very English butler, Geoffrey (Joseph Marcell).

Avery's bulky 6ft 5in frame, bald head and beard gave him a physical presence that perfectly fitted the pompous but well-meaning Uncle Phil, who teaches his nephew some of the secrets of life and the black experience. Avery's larger-than-life patriarch and the baseball cap-wearing Smith formed a formidable on-screen partnership over six series between 1990 and 1996 as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air became a worldwide hit.

Philip Banks was rated No 34 in a 2004 poll of the 50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time. Inevitably, Avery was associated with the character for the rest of his life.

"I figure I'll be like that until the day I die, but I have no problem with that," said the actor whose love of poetry and literature had led him into performing.

News of Avery's death came days after the co-creator, writer and producer of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Jeff Pollack, was found dead at the age of 54, apparently while jogging at Hermosa Beach, California.

James Avery was born in Virginia and brought up in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He served in the US Navy (1968-69) during the Vietnam war, before moving to San Diego, where he wrote television scripts and poetry for the PBS network. His production Ameda Speaks: Poet James Avery won an Emmy award.

He was keen to act, however, and took the role of God in the play JB, at San Diego Community College, in 1971. He won a scholarship to the University of California, San Diego, and graduated with a degree in drama and literature.

Avery's first film role, uncredited, was as a man dancing outside Ray Charles's music shop in the musical comedy The Blues Brothers (1980). He was soon getting small parts in episodes of television series such as Hill Street Blues (1984), The Dukes of Hazzard (1984), The A-Team (1985) and Beauty and the Beast (1988).In 1988, he appeared in Dallas as Judge Fowler, presiding over the custody trial of Bobby and Pam Ewing's adopted son, Christopher (Joshua Harris), which was initiated by Lisa Alden, sister of the boy's real father, Jeff Faraday. He was also seen as a judge, Michael Conover, in nine episodes (1988-92) of LA Law.

After The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air brought him fame, Avery played a lawyer again as one of the stars of the sitcom Sparks (1996-8). He played Alonzo Sparks, the patriarch in a California family law practice who frequently has to mediate between his two arguing sons.

Avery also had runs in two police series, as Charles Haysbert (2002-3), the boss of Captain Kate McCafferty (played by Bonnie Bedelia), in The Division (2001-4), and as Dr Crippen (2005-7), the deputy medical examiner, in The Closer.

There were many guest roles on television, but Avery was particularly adept at voicing popular animated series. He was heard as Turbo in Rambo (1986), Shredder (1987-93) in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, Sir Bryant in The Legend of Prince Valiant (1991-4), Haroud Hazi Bin in Aladdin (1994) and War Machine (1994) in Iron Man. He was also a presenter of the popular PBS travel series Going Places, which began in 1997.

On stage, Avery's roles included Lord Montague in Romeo and Juliet (Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, 2001), directed by Peter Hall, who cast a black Montague family and white Capulets, and Holloway in the August Wilson play Two Trains Running (Old Globe Theatre, San Diego, 2007). He also acted Howard Benedict in the musical Applause (Freud Playhouse, University of California, Los Angeles, 2005), based on the Oscar-winning film All About Eve and the original short story by Mary Orr, and the title role in Othello (Will Gear Theatricum Botanicum, Topanga, California).

His final film, Wish I Was Here, directed by Zach Braff, will be premiered at the Sundance Film Festival later this month.

Avery was awarded an honorary doctorate from Virginia State University in 1996. He died at the age of 68 of complications following open-heart surgery.

ANTHONY HAYWARD

James La Rue Avery, actor: born Pughsville, Suffolk County, Virginia 27 November 1945; married 1988 Barbara (one stepson); died Los Angeles 31 December 2013.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Senior Application Support -Fidessa, Charles River, Oracle, FIX

£50000 - £65000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Application Support - Fide...

Product Specialist - (Application Support, UNIX, SQL)

£45000 - £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Product Specialist - (Application...

Technical Specialist - (Application Support, UNIX, SQL)

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Technical Specialist - (Applicati...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home