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Five reasons James Avery was one of the greatest TV dads

Classically trained actor

By Breeanna Hare | 1/6/2014, 2:57 p.m.
James Avery, who played Uncle Phil on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” has died at a Glendale hospital. He was ...

James Avery, who played Uncle Phil on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” has died at a Glendale hospital. He was 68.

The upcomging funeral services are private and by invitation only.

The cause of death was complications from open-heart surgery, said his manager, Toni Benson. Avery had surgery on Nov. 11 and died Dec. 31, according to Benson.

Avery, with a deep baritone, often played judges, professors or doctors on his frequent guest shots through the 1980s and 1990s. He had extensive voice work credits for animated series as well.

But it was his role as a comic foil and role model Phillip Banks on the 1990s NBC series that propelled him to fame. Banks played “Uncle Phil” as a role model to a garrulous character played by rapper Will Smith. James Avery was a prolific and versatile actor during his 68 years, but he’s best known as Uncle Phil. A classically trained thespian, Avery filled the role of the tough but caring head of the Banks’ household on the 1990s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” for six years.

Along the way, he crafted a character that stands apart as one of the greatest fictional dads on TV. His costar Joseph Marcell, who portrayed the family butler Geoffrey, had it right when he said that Avery “strove to present an Uncle Phil that everybody wishes was their uncle.” As a result, his death this week has left a lot of fans feeling as though they’ve lost a family member. Every “Fresh Prince” fan probably has his or her own reasons why Uncle Phil was at the heart of the memorable comedy. Here are our top five:

  1. He was there for you in a jam. In case you missed “Fresh Prince” during its run from 1990 to 1996, or somehow escaped the endless repeats on basic cable in the years since, here’s a recap of the premise: Now-famous blockbuster actor Will Smith portrayed a mischievous Philadelphia teen who was sent to live with his rich relatives in Bel-Air. Cue the culture clash as free-spirited Will had to adjust to his Uncle Phil’s rigorous rules. Most of the humor came from that dynamic, but when Will—and, often, Phil’s son Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro)—really needed him, he didn’t hesitate to help them out. That was established clearly with an episode in season one, when Phil came to Will’s rescue at a pool hall after the kid lost money and a car to a hustler.

  2. Underneath his grizzly exterior was a sensitive role model. Although Uncle Phil and Will had their fights, the lawyer and eventual judge became a father figure for Smith’s character. This was shown in one heartbreaking season four episode, when Will’s biological father re-enters the picture only to leave his son once again. A distraught Will turned to his uncle, who readily embraced him. No matter how many times we watch this, we always get misty.

  3. He was not a man to be trifled with. Every so often we saw glimpses of Uncle Phil’s soft side, but it was his stern parenting style that always left us in stitches. Take, for example, the way he handled one of Carlton and Will’s failed schemes in season two; how he completely shut down one guy’s attempt to smoke in an elevator ... and then took his phone: Or how could we forget his confrontation at a police station in season one?

  4. He had a go-to move for kicking people out of his house. Whenever you saw Will Smith’s real-life friend and recording partner DJ Jazzy Jeff on-screen in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” you knew he wasn’t going to be around for long. The running gag on the sitcom was that Jazzy Jeff’s character, Jazz, was always getting thrown out of Uncle Phil’s mansion. It happened so often it became a patented move.

  5. He could bust a move when he wanted to. Uncle Phil was constantly getting ribbed by his family—and especially Will—about his weight, but the regal patriarch wasn’t without a sense of humor. Will brought it out of him with a classic dance scene from season five.

Avery is survived by his wife of 26 years, Barbara Avery, his mother Florence Avery of New Jersey, and stepson Kevin Waters. No services have been announced.

City News Service also contributed to this story.