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Friday, January 03, 2014

Farewell, James Avery (a.k.a. Uncle Phil)

Most of the time when I sit down and write a blog entry, I am usually in a good mood, and I can usually come up with an entry that is filled with a lot of laughs, a lot of fun, and if I'm lucky, I can hopefully inspire some of you to talk about your own memories regarding the subject of the blog.

And, don't be afraid to comment on the blog either. I really love reading all of your comments, be it posted on here, or on the social media networks that I frequently use.

(Just know this. Do not use the comments section to hock your wares or hyperlink to sites which will cost the reader some money. This blog is a non-profit blog, and I will delete your links.)

Today is one of those times in while the blog will take on a bit of a serious note.  Don't get me wrong...the blog will still feature a lot of pop culture memories, and will still contain some fun and laughs.  But it is also going to be a rather sad piece, because the person of which I have chosen to write about has passed away recently, and for me, it's quite a sad loss because he was a huge part of my childhood in a number of ways.

This is a tribute to actor James Avery, who passed away on New Years Eve, 2013, due to complications following surgery.  He was 68 years old.  And, in this piece, I'll be talking about the role that made him a household name.

But first, I think it's important to talk about the many things that James Avery did during his whole life.  I'll admit that when I first began doing research on the Pughsville, Virginia native, I was blown away at the incredible life he lived, and I was actually surprised to learn of some of the many roles he took on during his acting career.

For instance, I had no idea that James had served in the Vietnam War!  After graduating from high school in 1968, he enlisted in the United States Navy and participated in the war between 1968 and 1969 (arguably considered to be one of the deadliest periods of the nearly two decade conflict).  

Following that, Avery moved to San Diego, California, where he initially decided that he wanted to follow an entirely different career path altogether.  He was very interested in poetry and writing (a man after my own heart), and he was determined to try and make a career out of it.  In fact, I was perusing the internet for more information about this, and I happened to come across this quote that James Avery made when he was asked about his writing career.  Just listen to what he had to say about it.

"Writing is such a singular and lonely occupation.  And it's interesting; all of the work that you create is so singular".

Very profound, no?  Oh, yes, I'm also going to share this quote too, just because it made me laugh.  

"I don't understand this whole Twitter, Facebook stuff.  I don't get it.  Make a call.  Talk to somebody."

Sigh.  A man after my own heart.  (Even though admittedly, I use Facebook mostly to promote this blog...)

Anyway, while Avery was writing poetry, he was also getting work writing scripts for various television series, and it was that experience that persuaded Avery to begin an acting career.  And I bet you'll never guess what his first role ever was!  Come on, take a guess!  It might be difficult to think of one that stands out, because as it happens, his first role was actually as an uncredited extra!  But if you pop in a copy of the 1980 film, "The Blues Brothers", and watch really closely at the scene in which people are dancing, you might be able to spot him!  I only wish I could find the scene to point him out.  

But throughout the decade known as the 1980s, Avery made guest appearances in several sitcoms.  I don't even think I can list all of the shows he appeared on, but some of the most successful ones were "Newhart", "The Jeffersons", "Webster", "Amen", "The Hogan Family", "A Different World", and "227", just to name a few.  He would also appear in dramatic series such as "St. Elsewhere", "Simon & Simon", "Cagney & Lacey", "The A-Team", "Moonlighting", and "Dallas"!

And, he also had a prominent role in the voice work industry as well, appearing in cartoons from "Hulk Hogan's Rock 'N Wrestling" to "The Real Ghostbusters".

And, I'm sure that like many guys my age, all we would have to do is listen to James Avery speak, and we instantly hear the voice of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' main antagonist, Shredder!  Here, I'll post an episode that heavily features Shredder, just so you can hear him in action!  Remember, Avery plays the guy who looks like a human blender blade.

(And James Avery played Shredder for six years between 1987-1993.  At the time, it was nearly unheard of for a voice actor to play the same role for six consecutive years...well, that is until "The Simpsons" came along.)

But in 1993, Avery was forced to leave "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles", because his commitment to a live-action sitcom that he joined three years prior to him leaving the cartoon series was greater.  And, who could blame him, really?  Even the cast members he worked with on TMNT understood.  Heck, I understood the decision.  After all, it was that sitcom that made him a household name, and it was that sitcom that gave Avery his most famous role.

So, here's a little story all about how his life got flipped, turned upside down.  And, no, I'm not talking about Will Smith either (although this sitcom certainly helped Smith move all the way up to A-list celebrity).  I'm talking about Avery's role as Will's gruff, but kind uncle, Philip Banks, a wealthy judge who lives in a luxurious mansion.

The whole plot of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" is all about culture clashes.  Will Smith is a kid who grew up in one of Philadelphia's poorest neighbourhoods.  His father abandoned the family when Will was just a five-year-old, and his mother was a single parent who struggled to try and keep Will fed and clothed while dealing with the stresses of growing up in poverty.  After a serious confrontation with a bully at a basketball court, in which Will ended up badly injured, Will's mother decided that he needed to leave Philadelphia so that he could have a better life for himself.  So, the decision was made to have Will move in with his Aunt Vivian (his mother's sister) and Uncle Phil in the wealthy Los Angeles neighbourhood of Bel-Air.  And, the whole point of the series was seeing how someone who only knew a life of poverty would adapt to living a life of luxury almost overnight.

Of course, it wasn't completely all fun and games for Will.  Living in the Banks household was a challenge.  Will did get along with his Aunt Viv (though admittedly part of the reason why the role was recast midway through the series was because the first "Aunt Viv" openly despised Will Smith, and she was replaced by the second "Aunt Viv"), and he also had good relations with the two youngest Banks children, Ashley and Nicky.  But Hilary was a true-blue airhead, Carlton was a bit of a geeky snob, and I think Will and Geoffrey the butler traded more sarcastic jabs with each other than kind words!

But Will's relationship with Uncle Phil.  That was almost as complex as trying to discover the meaning of life!  And in order to explain it, it might be best to talk about Phil's early life.

You see, Phil's life of luxury wasn't handed to him from a lifetime of family fortunes.  No, he had to work hard for it.  He was born and raised on a farm, and worked hard on the farm doing chores until he was sixteen and relocated to Baltimore.  During the 1960s, Phil became heavily involved in the civil rights movement as an activist (presumably, it is around this time in which he meets his future wife, Vivian), and he was awarded a full scholarship to study at Princeton.  Shortly after that, Phil was accepted into Harvard Law School, and he graduated from that school to become a lawyer (which is the occupation he is currently working as when the show begins - he doesn't become a judge until midway through the series).

So, because Will had heard all the stories from his mother about his Uncle Phil and Aunt Vivian's life of luxury, he had the idea that living there would be incredibly easy, as he believed that the rich life had made them soft.

Boy, was he wrong!

Yeah...that was one thing about Phil that proved that he still had some fire underneath those expensive clothes and fancy digs.  If he was angry, you knew about it!  And, based on some of the things that Hilary, Carlton, and Ashley have said in past episodes, you never wanted to be on the wrong side of him.  Reportedly, he came up with some of the most sadistic and painful punishments ever invented.  Which I suppose was part and parcel of the fact that he did work as a judge, and often handed out stiff sentences as part of his job!

But Phil also had a couple of other flaws to his personality.  He sometimes had a way of re-imagining the past to how he saw fit when he explained to people that all he listened to was classical music.  So, why did he propose to his wife on the set of "Soul Train" where both of them danced on the stage?  And, as you can see on this special episode in which the show celebrated "Soul Train's" 25th anniversary, Phil seemed to have forgotten a lot of the moves he performed while on that show!

Phil also seemed to play favourites with his children when the series first began.  For some reason, he seemed to spoil Hilary with all sorts of presents and privileges, while seemingly not giving his other children the same attention...which could explain how Hilary ended up as a spoiled, entitled brat herself.  But by the end of the series, Phil had even grown tired of Hilary's whining and put his foot down, insisting that Hilary make her own living in the world.  I don't know if she ever did get that message, but I think that by the time the series wrapped up, she was at least trying.

But despite all of the anger that he had at times, and despite all of the moments in which he sometimes let the money and power he had go to his head (his butler almost quit for good because he refused to give him a raise), there was a softer side to Phil as well.  And, I think that side was best shown in the episode in which Will's father comes back into his life after a nearly fifteen year absence and wants to start up a new relationship with him.

Naturally, with Will's father coming back into his life, Will was more than excited to make up for all of the lost time with him.  They hung out together, they laughed together, and Will even made plans to spend some time with him away from Bel-Air...a plan that Uncle Phil strongly disapproved of.  After all, Phil heard all about what kind of a man Will's father was from Vivian herself, and Phil believed that Will's father left him once before - what made him think that he wouldn't do it again?

Naturally, Will did not want to hear Phil's concerns, and it lead to a huge argument between the two of them.  But when Will's father showed his true colours once again, and fate had Will walking in on his father after he had a confrontation with Phil, this powerful scene soon followed.  And, it showed all of us just how much of a man Philip Banks really was.

Right there in that moment, Uncle Phil became the father figure that Will needed in his life.  Right there in that moment, Uncle Phil didn't seem nearly so scary.  And, right there in that moment, James Avery proved that he was the perfect person for that role.

Truth be told, one of the reasons why Uncle Phil was so stern and strict was because he wanted what was best for all of his children - and that included his nephew, Will.  He pushed them hard because he knew how hard the world could be, and he wanted them to be prepared for it.  And, you know what?  I think he succeeded.

I think that's why I find it sort of difficult to grasp that James Avery really is gone.  He was such a huge presence in film, television, and animation, and yet he really gave off the impression that he was a gentle giant.  I think that it would have been cool to have met him because I imagine that he would have had a lot of stories to tell.  And, even in his later years, he was still going strong.  He had lost a lot of weight, and he was appearing in quite a few sitcoms and drama series.  In fact, one of his last roles was on the soap opera "The Young and the Restless"...ironically enough playing a judge, of all things!

James Avery brought Uncle Phil to life as one of the most complex sitcom stars to come out of the 1990s...and boy, did he have fun doing it.

James Avery

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