James Avery dies at 65; played father figure on TV’s ‘Fresh Prince’

James Avery, who starred as the stern but lovable “Uncle Phil” on the hit 1990s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” died on New Year’s Eve at age 65 due to complications from open-heart surgery.


James Avery, who portrayed the commanding yet cuddly father figure on the hit 1990s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” died at a Glendale hospital Tuesday of complications from open heart surgery. He was 65.

His death was confirmed by his manager, Toni Benson.

Although trained as a Shakespearean actor, Avery won his widest audience in the role of Judge Philip Banks — “Uncle Phil” — on “Fresh Prince,” which aired on NBC from 1990 to 1996.

Ranked No. 34 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time, the Navy veteran’s stern, straight-arrow character provided a foil for series star Will Smith, who played the wise-cracking teenage nephew from the mean streets of west Philadelphia who moved into Uncle Phil’s uptight Bel-Air household.


Avery was mourned by “Fresh Prince” co-star Alfonso Ribeiro on Twitter Wednesday morning.

“I’m deeply saddened to say that James Avery has passed away,” wrote Ribeiro, who played the spoiled son Carlton Banks. “He was a second father to me. I’ll miss him greatly.”

Born Nov. 27, 1948, in Atlantic City, N.J., and raised by a hardworking single mother, Avery joined the Navy after high school and served in the Vietnam War. After completing his military duty, he landed in California with dreams of becoming a writer. He wrote poems and plays about the hippie life, turning to acting out of frustration with the student actors at a small college he was attending in San Diego.

Initially focused on a career in the theater, he trained in London and at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and earned a bachelor’s degree in drama and literature from UC San Diego.

Over the years he compiled extensive Shakespearean credits, including featured roles in “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., “Twelfth Night” at the San Jose Repertory Company, “Othello” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and “Romeo and Juliet” at the Ahmanson Theatre.

He first appeared on screen in an uncredited role in 1980’s “The Blues Brothers.”

During a career in television and film that spanned more than three decades, he lent his stentorian voice to several animated series, including 1987’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and 1990’s “Iron Man.” He also hosted the PBS travel show “Going Places.”

He was frequently cast as a well-heeled, well-educated man who happened to be black, playing a judge on NBC’s “L.A. Law” and ABC’s “Murder One” and the head of a Los Angeles law firm on the UPN sitcom “Sparks.”


Avery said he did not mind the casting. “Kids watch these shows,” he told the San Jose Mercury News in 1996. “They’re sponges. They soak up everything. That’s why it’s important to show successful black families like the Banks and the Sparks, people who weren’t born to the manor, but worked hard to get there. I think that’s an important message.”

Avery wrapped his final film, “Wish I Was Here,” directed by Zach Braff, in September. The movie is set to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this month.

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

Times staff writer Elaine Woo contributed to this report.