James Avery, best known for his role as Uncle Phil alongside a young Will Smith in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” died Tuesday following complications from surgery, according to media reports. He was 68.
In “Fresh Prince,” Avery played Philip Banks, the uncle of Smith’s character. Banks is a successful lawyer with whom his nephew is sent to live because of crime in his native Philadelphia neighborhood.
During the show’s first year, The Washington Post’s Donna Britt wrote that the cast of “Fresh Prince” managed a genuine portrayal of African-American experience:
In his music and in the flesh, Smith’s buoyant, seemingly effortless niceness--plus his lack of the rage that makes other rappers and their music so threatening--make him the perfect TV rap object. Television execs must have seen Smith as a godsend--the ideal guy to bring a whiff of rap to TV without offending anybody.
Not surprisingly, the resulting show isn’t entirely fresh. Its story--about a Philadelphia street kid who is sent to live with his rich uncle’s family in Ronald Reagan’s stomping grounds--is reminiscent of the poor-black-kid-gets-rich-digs tradition set by “Diff’rent Strokes.”
But in its pilot, at least, the clever “Fresh” offers moments of authenticity absent from many sitcoms purporting to portray African American life. Like when the stiff, rich uncle--who initially seems to be TV’s classic wannabe-white guy-reveals his revolutionary roots. Certain standard-but-false TV “blackisms”--calling folks “sucker” or “jive turkey,” constantly giving the high-five or the angry black female head-bob--are entirely absent.
Avery also appeared in “Grey’s Anatomy,” “NYPD Blue,” “Dallas,” and “That ’70s Show,” as well as in many films. He was also a prolific voice actor and read Shredder’s lines in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
Avery was born in Virginia and raised in Atlantic City, and served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. He is survived by his mother, Florence J. Avery, and his wife, Barbara.