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Remembering James Avery: 1948-2013

'Fresh Prince of Bel Air' Actor Dies at 68

Stacy M. Brown | 1/8/2014, 3 p.m.
James Avery, the lovable but stern family head on Will Smith's popular television series "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," ...
James Avery (Courtesy photo)

To many, he will always be Uncle Phil, the lovable but stern family head on Will Smith’s popular television series, “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”

James Avery, the actor who also appeared in the 1980 film “The Blues Brothers,” CBS’ “CSI,” and NBC’s “L.A. Law,” died on New Year’s Eve following complications from open heart surgery. He was 68.

“James was my teacher, my protector, and the most magnificent actor,” said Tatyana Ali, who portrayed Ashley Banks on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” which ran for seven seasons on NBC from 1990 to 1996.

“We’re feeling his loss very deeply,” said Ali, 34. “He’ll always be a part of me.”

Alfonso Ribeiro, who played Avery’s son, Carlton Banks, said his television father’s death has devastated him.

“I’m deeply saddened to say that he passed away,” said Ribeiro, 42. “He was a second father to me. I will miss him greatly.”

A classically trained actor, Avery grew up in Atlantic City, N.J., after his birth in Hampton, Va.

Raised by a single mother, Avery served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and first appeared on screen as a dancer in an uncredited role in the 1980 film, “The Blues Brothers,” starring Dan Aykroyd and the late John Belushi.

Avery also wrote scripts and poetry for the Public Broadcasting Service and would eventually appear in various television shows, including “The Closer,” on TNT.

Because of his deep voice, Avery often portrayed judges or doctors.

But, his portrayal of Phillip Banks on, “The Fresh Prince...,” remains his signature role in show business.

Uncle Phil, the moniker that all would come to know him, counted as a successful lawyer and then a judge who, although wealthy and living in a Bel Air, Calif., mansion complete with a butler, taught his children and nephew the importance of working hard and earning a decent living.

His wayward nephew, Will Smith, moved from Philadelphia to live with the Banks family in California after the teen continually found trouble in Pennsylvania and ultimately proved too much to handle for his struggling single mother.

The show, co-executive produced by the legendary Quincy Jones, became the launching pad for Smith to superstardom.

Smith, a former hip-hop star with D.J. Jazzy Jeff, who also had a recurring role on the show, proceeded to become one of Hollywood’s biggest box office attractions.

Smith portrayed Capt. Steven Hiller in the blockbuster film, “Independence Day,” in 1996, before starring as, “Agent Jay,” in the hit movie series, “Men in Black,” with Tommy Lee Jones.

Smith’s credits also include, “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” “Enemy of the State,” “I, Robot,” “Hitch,” “The Pursuit of Happyness,” “I am Legend,” “Hancock,” and the “Bad Boys,” movie series with Martin Lawrence.

Smith’s wife, Baltimore-native Jada Pinkett Smith, released a statement expressing her family’s grief over Avery’s death.

“I was hoping to start the New Year differently but we have lost yet another friend,” said Pinkett Smith, 42.

“James Avery, who we all loving know as Uncle Phil, has passed. Our condolences go out to aunt Florence (Avery’s mother), Miss Barbara (Avery’s wife) and all those who loved him.”

Prior to his death, Avery filmed the movie, “Wish I Was Here,” with Zach Braff, which will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival later this month.

“He was a marvelous man and a truly wonderful actor,” said Joseph Marcell, who played Geoffrey the Butler on, “The Fresh Prince…”

“He strove to present an Uncle Phil that everybody wishes were their uncle,” said Marcell, 65.

Avery’s family did not disclose funeral plans.

He’s survived by his wife of 26 years, Barbara Avery; his mother, Florence Avery, and stepson, Kevin Waters.