LOS ANGELES – 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, Calif., hospital Tuesday night due to complications from open heart surgery, according to his manager. He was 65, according to public records.
Over the course of a journeyman career in television and film that spanned more than three decades, Avery lent his stentorian speaking voice to several animated series, including 1987’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and 1990’s “Iron Man.”
The Virginia-born, New Jersey-raised actor first appeared onscreen in an uncredited role in 1980’s “The Blues Brothers” and turned up as a regular on such TV series as “L.A. Law,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Sparks.”
But Avery’s role as Judge Phillip Banks – “Uncle Phil” – on “Fresh Prince” brought him his widest audience. 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. After rescuing Smith’s wise-cracking, street-wise Fresh Prince character from the mean streets of west Philadelphia, the bourgeois tranquility of Uncle Phil’s uptight Bel Air household set up the fish-out-of-water culture clash that powered “Fresh Prince’s” situational comedy from 1990 until Smith’s departure in 1996.
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 later this month.
Avery is survived by his wife of 26 years, Barbara Avery; his mother, Florence Avery; and his stepson, Kevin Waters.