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James Avery — Uncle Phil on ‘Fresh Prince’ dies

James Avery as Philip Banks, Will Smith as William "Will" Smith, and Janet Hubert as Vivian Banks in "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." (AP Photo/NBC, Ron Tom) (Ron Tom/AP)

James Avery, the bulky character actor who laid down the law at home and on the job as the Hon. Philip Banks in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” died Dec. 31 in Glendale, Calif., following complications from open-heart surgery.

He was 68, said his publicist, Cynthia Snyder, who confirmed the death.

Mr. Avery, who stood more than 6 feet tall, played the family patriarch and a wealthy lawyer and judge on the popular TV comedy that launched the acting career of Will Smith as Banks’s troublemaking nephew.

The sitcom, which aired on NBC from 1990 to 1996, was set in the Banks family mansion, to which Smith’s character was sent from Philadelphia when things got tough in his own neighborhood. Fans came to know the imposing Banks as Uncle Phil.

Mr. Avery liked to say that the way to be an actor was to act, and he had a busy and diverse career before, during and after “Fresh Prince.” His TV credits included “Grey’s Anatomy,” “NYPD Blue” and “Dallas,” and among his many films were “Fletch,” “Nightflyers” and “8 Million Ways to Die.” His voice alone brought him many jobs, notably as Shredder in the animated TV series “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

Snyder said he will be seen in the film “Wish I Was Here,” directed by Zach Braff and scheduled to premiere this month at the Sundance Film Festival.

Mr. Avery grew up in Atlantic City and served in the Navy in Vietnam in the late 1960s. After returning to the United States, he settled in California and studied drama and literature at the University of California at San Diego.

Survivors include his wife, Barbara; and a stepson, Kevin Waters.

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