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


Click to follow
The Independent Online

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.


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