James Avery, a classically trained actor and Vietnam veteran who became nationally famous as Will Smith’s fictional “Uncle Phil” on the 1990s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, has died at age 65, CNN reports.
According to the New York Daily News, the actor passed away on New Year’s Eve due to complications from a recent open heart surgery procedure.
The entertainment news website TMZ recounted that Avery’s wife Barbara was with him at his bedside in a Los Angeles hospital. But, when she briefly left his room to get a bite to eat, her husband passed away.
Actor Alphonso Ribeiro, who also co-starred with Avery and Smith on Fresh Prince in the role of Carlton Banks, first announced his co-star’s death via the social media platform Twitter.
“I’m deeply saddened to say that James Avery has passed away,” Ribeiro wrote. “He was a second father to me. I will miss him greatly.”
Though he will be best remembered for his role on the six-season NBC situation comedy that launched Will Smith to Hollywood superstardom, James Avery remained a steadily working actor, largely in television, up until not long before his death.
He had recurring roles on Star Trek: Enterprise, That ’70s Show, and The Closer, as well as appearing in numerous other TV shows and made-for-TV movies.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air premiered in September of 1990 and ran for full six seasons, coming to a close in May of 1996. At the time, Will Smith was a rapper known as The Fresh Prince who had scored several hits in the 1980s, but was suffering serious financial troubles.
But his role on the sitcom gave his career a new direction, and Smith has gone on to become one of the most successful box-office draws in Hollywood history.
Avery’s role as the fictional version of Smith’s uncle, benevolent, yet perpetually annoyed with his nephew’s antics, was a key to the series’ success.
James Avery was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey on November 27, 1948. He grew up there, raised by a single mother. But after serving in the Navy during the Vietnam war, he moved to San Diego where he began writing for PBS television.
“I knew I loved the arts,” Avery once said.” I knew I wanted to be a writer.” But his main focus was acting.
James Avery’s big screen debut came in 1980, with a uncredited appearance in The Blues Brothers.