The world lost a great actor on Tuesday.
Known to fans around the world as Uncle Phil on “Fresh Prince Of Bel Air” and to kids as the voice of Shredder in the original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” animated series (1987 – 1996), James Avery was a bigger-than-life guy with an even bigger talent.
Not only did the Shakespearean-trained Avery have success in front of the camera, he also had a nice one as a voice over actor, voicing such roles as Rhodey a.k.a. War Machine for the “Iron Man” and “Spider-Man” cartoon series (as well as for the “Ghostbusters” cartoon) and providing his voice for video games – his most recent being Br’er Bear for 2011’s Disneyland Kinect Adventures.
And a fun fact I didn’t know until I checked his IMDb page was that he considered for the role of Charlie Altamont in Rob Zombie’s cult classic, The Devil’s Rejects. WOW, right?!
Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Avery joined the Navy after high school and served in Vietnam (1968-1969). Once his time was up, he headed out to California, where he worked for PBS writing scripts and poetry and earned himself not only an Emmy for his production work, but a scholarship to UC San Diego. He left there with a B.A. in Drama and Literature.
“Fresh Prince” and Avery’s work as Uncle Phil made an indelible mark on the world; where “The Cosby Show” showed an affluent African-American family in New York, “Fresh Prince” presented life in California with a twist – because as we all know, Will got in one little fight and his mom got scared and said “You’re moving with your auntie and uncle in Bel Air.” Uncle Phil was the patriarch, a powerful lawyer (then later a judge) and could scare the pants off of anyone else but his own family and especially Will (who never met a “big man” joke he didn’t like). But when time came to dispense the wisdom, Uncle Phil was a bottomless fount of love and knowledge.
Not only was he loved by fans around the world, he was respected by many in the industry like veteran voice over actor Maurice LaMarche (“Futurama”, “Pinky And The Brain”), who took to his Facebook page to express his sadness of Avery’s passing.
On a personal note, I met Avery years ago as a college student attending my region’s The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival where he was the keynote speaker, and while I’m sad I didn’t ask for a pic with this great man, I have a feeling he would’ve gladly posed for one had I asked.
One thing he’s said over and over again has always stuck with me and luckily it’s also on his IMDb:
You are only an actor if you absolutely love it and can not do anything else. Starving for your art is great in your 20s, but it’s not so great at 35. It has to be absolute love. You can’t worry about being a movie star or anything else. Just love. That’s it.
Avery died Tuesday from complications following an open heart surgery. He is survived by his wife, Barbara, and his mother, Florence. Avery was 65.
I think Avery would be befuddled yet touched by the outpouring of emotions on social media around the world, as he himself said of the phenomenon:
I don’t understand this whole Twitter, Facebook stuff. I don’t get it. Make a phone call. Talk to somebody.
I think he and J.R.R. Tolkien are gonna be great friends in the afterlife.
Rest well, Uncle Phil-Shredder-War Machine-amazingly talented human being. You, your IMMENSE talent, and infectious smile will be missed.
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