It’s been almost three weeks and I still cannot get my head around the sad passing of James Avery at the age of 68. The actor who passed away on New Year’s Eve in California due to complications from open heart surgery has been acting since 1980 and has had roles in a lot of my childhood faves including Beauty And The Beast, Jake And The Fatman, The Dukes Of Hazard, Cagney and Lacey, The Scarecrow and Mrs. King, The A-Team, Moonlighting and Dallas. And that’s just a fraction of his long acting career. In addition to all this, he also provided the voice for Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Planet of The Turtleoids; was an accomplished poet and served in Vietnam. But what the Virginia Native is most well-known for – especially here in the UK – is his role as tough but loveable attorney (and later judge) Philip Banks in The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air.
Avery played the patriarch in the popular nineties sit-com where his gruff manner often brought him into conflict with his family, especially his nephew Will, played by Will Smith who has been sent by his worried mother to live with the Banks family after Will got into a fight. He was tough and straight-talking and never put up with any nonsense from anyone. Who could forget the number of times Will’s friend, Jazz was comically thrown out of the house by Uncle Phil for being cheeky? Or the way Uncle Phil dealt with the officer on duty after he and Will were wrongfully arrested and put in a cell on Thanksgiving? Or how he took on the hustlers at the pool hall? That was Uncle Phil – he could put the fear of God into anyone.
But underneath that tough exterior was a real family man who loved his wife and kids including his wayward nephew. He was fiercely protective of them all and was determined that his children made good use of the opportunities that were available to them and make something of their lives rather than grow up to be over-privileged, spoilt rich kids.
Philip Banks was the example of the kind of father/uncle every man should be. He wasn’t afraid to discipline his children, teaching them right from wrong but he was fair and loving when he needed to be. Despite being born into a life full of privileges, he encouraged them to be independent, to stand on their own two feet and to have ambition. Even though the kids got themselves into scrapes a number of times – scrapes Philip often had to rescue them from – there wasn’t the slightest sign of addiction, rehab visits, dysfunctional relationships or scandal – a sure sign that he was doing something right. It’s no wonder that the character of Philip Banks ranked number 34 in TV Guide’s list of the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time” [20 June 2004 issue]. Although personally, I think he should have ranked much higher. James Avery is quoted as having said, “I don’t understand this whole Twitter, Facebook stuff. I don’t get it. Make a phone call. Talk to somebody.” In a world where people have made their iPads and notebooks their very best friends, Avery reminds us that it’s human contact that is important. He’s also quoted as saying, “Monetary success is not success. Career success is not success. Life, someone that loves you, giving to others, doing something that makes you feel complete and full. That is success. And it isn’t dependent on anyone else.” I think it would be fair to say that a lot of James Avery went into the character of Philip Banks.
Naturally I have fond memories of watching The Fresh Prince. During the 1990s it used to be on in the evenings on a weekday and I’d much rather be watching The Fresh Prince than doing my homework. Who cares if I got told off and had to complete homework in detention? All the kids at school would be talking about it and rapping the lyrics to the theme tune – there was no way I was missing out on all of that. It was one of the most popular shows of the decade and something that I used to watch with my siblings. I was so disappointed when the series eventually ended but to this day I’m so glad that it featured as part of my childhood memories and made it’s mark in my era.
Even after The Fresh Prince ended, Avery continued to work steadily as a voice over artist and made appearances in shows such as My Wife and Kids, Grey’s Anatomy, Star Trek: Enterprise, NYPD Blue, That 70s Show and Charmed. Avery often played characters in the legal or some other high level professional field and he will forever be remembered for his towering stature, beard and booming voice.
Of course tributes came in thick and fast for the actor – who is survived by his mother, wife Barbara and stepson Kevin – after news of his death broke. Alfonso Ribeiro, who played Carlton Banks in The Fresh Prince, took to Facebook to say:
“The world has lost a truly special man. I am very saddened to say that James Avery has passed. Even though he played my father on TV, he was a wonderful father figure to me in life. He will be deeply missed.”
Will Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith also paid tribute to the man she had the honour of working with on The Fresh Prince:
“We have lost yet another friend. James Avery who we all lovingly know as Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince has passed. Our condolences to aunt Florence (his mother), Miss Barbara (his wife) and all those who loved him. Rest in peace James.”
Avery’s on-screen daughter, Tatiana Ali stated that Avery would “always be a part of me,” while supermodel Tyra Banks who also starred in The Fresh Prince remembered how warm Avery was to her on-set.
But the most poignant tribute came from Will Smith who summed up perfectly what everyone felt:
“Some of my greatest lessons in acting, living and being a respectable human being came through James Avery. Every young man needs an Uncle Phil. Rest in Peace.”
An actor who will be sorely missed… and he will forever be everyone’s Uncle Phil.
Rest in peace, James Avery. Thanks for the memories.