It is with great sadness that we share the news that actor James Avery has died due to complications from heart surgery. This news was confirmed by Avery’s manager as well as Avery’s Fresh Prince of Bel-Air co-star Alfonso Ribeiro. Avery is likely best known for playing the role of Phillip Banks on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air…
THR shared the news, along with word that the cause of death had to do with Avery’s heart surgery. Avery was 65 years old and still somewhat active as an actor, with recent credits that include guest sports in Harry’s Law and Grey’s Anatomy, as well as roles in a number of TV movies (Hunt for the Labyrinth Killer, Go, Bolivia, Go!). Avery’s credits go back to the 80s, however, with roles in shows like Hill Street Blues, The Dukes of Hazzard and St. Elsewhere, as well as a voice role in the 1986 Rambo series. But he didn’t quite rise to fame until the early 90s when he took on the role of Phillip Banks, a wealthy judge, husband and father and “Uncle Phil” to Will Smith’s character in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
It’s an understatement to say that Avery was a key part of the memorable humor of the NBC comedy, as his chemistry with Will Smith yielded some of the series’ funniest moments. Keen on raising his kids to fit in among the other Bel-Air elite, Uncle Phil rarely tolerated Will’s antics and wasn't a fan of his nephew's cool, casual attitude toward everything. That dynamic played a big part of the premise of the show, which centered on Will Smith's character as he attempted to acclimate himself to Bel-Air life, having grown up in Philadelphia. In some cases, it never took more than a hard look from Avery to demonstrate his character’s disapproval when Will was getting up to no good. In turn, Will rarely missed a chance to antagonize his uncle for fun. Just the name “Phillip Banks” prompts an easy flashback of the election video Will tampered with and a certain wide-eyed expression:
If Uncle Phil had a hard time tolerating Will’s antics, Will’s best friend Jazz was ten times more intolerable, as evidenced by all the times Phil tossed him out of the house:
Being the serious guy in the room was often Phil's shtick, but he really was a loving father and uncle, and Avery's portrayal of the character was a big part of that. We can remember those severe looks as easily as we can remember Phil's delighted smile.
Avery’s passing is sad news and it goes without saying that he’ll be remembered well by those of us who appreciated his work, and especially those who will always remember him best as Uncle Phil. Our thoughts go out to his friends and family in their time of loss.