Saturday 20 January 2018

Obituary: James Avery

Actor who played Will Smith's Uncle Phil in 'The Fresh Prince of Bel Air'

JAMES Avery, the American actor, who died on New Year's Eve aged 68, was best known as Will Smith's ponderous and burly Uncle Phil in NBC's popular sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990-96).

Smith, one half of the real-life rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, starred in the series as a jive-talkin' street kid from West Philadelphia, who is sent by his mother to live with his wealthy lawyer uncle Philip Banks (Avery) and aunt (Janet Hubert) and their family at their swanky estate in Bel Air, California. A fish out of water, he survives by wisecracking his way through each episode, with Avery acting as his foil.

In a typical exchange, Uncle Phil proudly tells a lawyer friend that Will will be attending Bel Air Academy. "Good for you, Will," says the friend, "I used to fence at Bel Air."

"Really?" says Will, impressed for once. "How much do you think we could get for that stereo?"

Bossy but well-meaning, Uncle Phil has turned his back on his racial heritage in order to fit in to smart white society, and much of the humour derived from the show's exploitation of the gulf between his aspirations and social reality. Uncle Phil cannot understand why his party invitations to his neighbour Ronald Reagan go unanswered, while his more down-to-earth wife is secretly relieved that the Reagans ignore them because she cannot stand Nancy.

James La Rue Avery was born on November 27, 1945 at Pughsville, Virginia, to a single mother and brought up in Atlantic City. After leaving school, he joined the US Navy and saw service in the Vietnam War in 1968-69. Returning to America, he settled in San Diego, where he wrote poetry and scripts and won a scholarship to the University of California at San Diego where he took a degree in Drama and Literature in 1978.

Avery continued to write, while pursuing a career as an actor. Known for his deep, resonant voice, he made his stage debut in the role of God in JB in a production in San Diego in 1971, and his screen debut in an uncredited role in The Blues Brothers (1980).

He was frequently cast as well-heeled, well-educated establishment figures (judges, professors or doctors), playing a judge on NBC's LA Law and ABC's Murder One; the head of a Los Angeles law firm on the UPN sitcom Sparks; and a doctor in Grey's Anatomy. Rejecting any suggestions that he might be "selling out", he argued that it was important for black children to see successful black families like the Banks and the Sparks, "people who weren't born to the manor, but worked hard to get there".

As well as recurring roles in The Legend of Tarzan, Showtime's Soul Food and The Division, Avery did voice acting for many animated series -- most notably as the voice of the Shredder, the arch-villain in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series (1987); as War Machine in the Nineties Iron Man series; and as Junkyard Dog in Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling (1985-86). He also hosted the PBS travel and adventure show Going Places and notched up a long list of film and television credits, including Star Trek: Enterprise. He continued to make frequent appearances on stage, taking numerous Shakespearean roles, including Othello at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

He made his last television appearance as a judge in the CBS soap The Young and the Restless in 2012, and completed his final film, Wish I Was Here, directed by Zach Braff, in September last year.

James Avery is survived by his wife, Barbara, and by a stepson.

Irish Independent

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