Numerous sources have reported the death of James Avery, the actor who honed his commanding presence and regal bearing with Shakespeare, then wielded them as a foil for wisecracking youngsters like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Will Smith’s The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. Avery died of complications following open-heart surgery at the age of 68.
If Smith’s smart-alecky scrapper sat on his throne as the Fresh Prince, then Avery’s “Uncle Phil” was the king of that popular early-’90s sitcom, where his stuffy, patrician ways clashed with Smith’s West Philadelphia breeding. And yet, while Uncle Phil didn’t stand for any nonsense—just look at what happened every time poor DJ Jazzy Jeff popped by—his was a tough love, and Avery’s portrayal ably toed that line between stickler and softie that makes for the most iconic of TV dads. Indeed, TV Guide ranked Philip Banks at No. 34 on the list of “50 Greatest TV Dads Of All Time.”
Avery’s own background as a Vietnam vet who was also a poet, scriptwriter, and Shakespearean actor echoed that duality, and Avery’s own career rise informed the pride Philip—a farmer’s son who struggled through the civil rights movement to become a powerful, Harvard-educated attorney—felt in being a self-made man. Philip Banks was the head of an upscale, accomplished black family, but far from the “Oreo” stereotype that had been seen in so many contemporary comedies. Avery’s performance helped make the show one of TV’s most progressive and authentic portrayals of African-American life, just as its most obvious (if not quite as loud) predecessor The Cosby Show was ending. Not bad for a sitcom created almost entirely to get Will Smith out of tax problems.
Avery found himself playing other variations on the authoritarian type over his long TV career, popping up as judges, reverends, doctors, and professors on shows such as L.A. Law, Night Court, The Closer, Crossing Jordan, and That ’70s Show (where he played the commanding officer to Ashton Kutcher’s police cadet, in a storyline that actually happened). He also had a recurring role on The Division, and starred as the patriarch of another successful black family in the UPN sitcom Sparks, once again playing a lawyer whose family practice included a son played by Terrence Howard.
But outside of Fresh Prince, Avery had his most lasting TV impact completely unseen, lending his resonant growl to the masked villain Shredder of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Beginning in 1987, Avery was The Shredder for the first seven seasons of the phenomenally popular cartoon—when the character was definitely cunning and evil, yet he still suffered his foolish henchmen Rocksteady and Bebop and bickered with Krang, giving Shredder an occasional comedic side. The Shredder of later seasons was more single-mindedly bent on destruction, to his character’s detriment.
After leaving Ninja Turtles, Avery continued voice acting as the man behind an altogether different mask, playing James Rhodes, a.k.a War Machine, in the animated Iron Man series.
Among his many movie roles, which all began with an uncredited appearance as “Man Dancing” in The Blues Brothers, Avery could be seen as a detective in Fletch; the DMV examiner who flunks Corey Haim in License To Drive; one of many neighbors weirded out by The Brady Bunch Movie; and playing somewhat against type as the smooth-talking “Caddy Mack” in the hip-hop golf comedy Who’s Your Caddy?. His final role was in Zach Braff’s Kickstarter-financed Wish I Was Here, which is scheduled to debut this month at Sundance.