Burly African-American character actor James Avery, sometimes credited as James L. Avery, is widely known for his portrayal of the uncle/patriarch and attorney Philip Banks, whom Will Smith’s character tenderly called “Uncle Phil,” on the popular television sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (NBC, 1990-1996). He has also built a body of work in voiceovers for countless animated series, most notably the popular syndicated show “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (1987-1994), voicing the wicked Shredder, and “Iron Man” (1994-1995), as the voice of James R. ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes. In the late 1990s, he gained popularity after being the primary host of the successful PBS travel and adventure series “Going Places” (1997).
In addition to his sitcom popularity, Avery has had recurring characters in such TV series as “Beauty and the Beast” (1988), “Amen” (1986-1989), “L.A. Law” (1988-1992), The Division” (2002-2003), “Soul Food” (2001-2003), “That ‘70s Show” (2004) and “The Closer” (2005-2006), and been a regular performer on NBC’s “FM” (1989) and UPN’s “Sparks” (1996). On the movie front, Avery is known for playing roles in such vehicles as License to Drive (1988), Chasing Sunsets (2001), Dr. Dolittle 2 (2001), Wheelmen (2002), The Third Wish (2005), Restraining Order (2006) and Think Tank (2006). He is scheduled to play roles in four upcoming movies, including Who’s Your Caddy (2007), Divine Intervention (2007) and Steppin: The Movie (2007).
Outside the spotlight, Avery is happily married to Barbara, the Dean of Student Life at Occidental College in California. In his free time, he enjoys practicing water sports like snorkeling, sailing, swimming and scuba diving.
Childhood and Family:
In Atlantic City, New Jersey, James L. Avery Sr., who would later be famous as James Avery, was born on November 27, 1948. Soon after high school graduation, he joined the U.S. Navy, and from 1968 to 1969, served in the Vietnam War. He left the military and then settled in San Diego, California. He attended San Diego’s University of California on a scholarship and graduated with a BA in drama and literature. He also won a fellowship to study at London’s Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.
James married his wife Barbara in 1988. She is the Dean of Student Life at California’s Occidental College.
Ninja Turtles’ Villain
A Vietnam vet, James Avery started to write TV scripts and poetry for PBS. During his tenure at PBS, he was awarded an Emmy for production. A classical trained performer, he perfected his acting skills as a member of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland before branching out to commercials and TV.
Avery’s first taste in front of the film camera arrived in 1980 when he landed unaccredited parts in the John Landis-Dan Aykroyd written The Blues Brothers, which starred Aykroyd himself and John Belushi, and The Stunt Man, a comedy starring the Irish-born Peter O’Toole. He made his TV movie debut with Anthony and Cleopatra, as Mardian, three years later and followed it up with a series of TV guest appearances, including playing the recurring role of Tolliver in “Hill Street Blues” (1984), before scoring his first regular role on the NBC animated kids’ series “Going Bananas,” voicing Hank. The next year, he appeared with James Garner, Susan Anspach and Beau Bridges in his first miniseries, the Emmy Award-winning “Space,” based on a novel by James A. Michener.
While collecting small roles in features, such as playing Clarence in the Charlie Sheen vehicle Three for the Road (1987) and Les’ DMV Examiner in the teen comedy License to Drive (1988), Avery kept busy on the small screen. He did several voice-overs and was heard in Hulk Hogan’s “Rock ‘N’ Wrestling” cartoon series (1985, as Junkyard Dog), the animated “Rambo” series (1986, as Turbo) and “The Legend of Prince Valiant” (9 episodes, as Sir Bryant), but became famous for his seven-year term in the well-liked syndicated cartoon series “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (1987-1994), as the voice of Shredder, and as James R. ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes on the animated “Iron Man” series (1994-1995). He could also be seen playing the recurring roles of Winslow in the CBS fantasy romance series “Beauty and the Beast” (1988), Reverend Crawford in the NBC sitcom “Amen” (1986-1989) and Judge Michael Conover on the NBC drama series “L.A. Law” (1988-1992). The actor made his debut as a live-action TV series regular in “FM,” the 1989 NBC sitcom where he played the role of Quentin Lamoreaux, a radio personality.
Avery experienced a huge TV breakthrough when he was handed the regular role of Phillip Banks, the uncle/patriarch and lawyer (later judge), on the NBC sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (1990-1996), opposite Will Smith. The show was a hit and so was Avery. After the series left the airwaves, he was cast in another patriarch role, this time as the father in a family of attorneys on the UPN sitcom “Sparks” (1996). Avery went on to lend his voice for episodes of TV cartoon series like “Spider-Man” (1996), “Captain Simian & The Space Monkeys” (1996) and Disney’s “Pepper Ann” (1999), and bolstered his prominence as the main host of the popular PBS travel and adventure series “Going Places” (1997).
Small roles in the made-for-TV film Epoch, opposite David Keith and Ryan O’Neal, and in the independent movie Dancing in September, in addition to several guest spots on TV series like “C.S.I.” and “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place,” were Avery’s opening work in the new millennium. After costarring with Scott Robinson and Lucy Goncalves in the drama Chasing Sunsets (2001), he portrayed the supporting role of Eldon in the Eddie Murphy vehicle Dr. Dolittle 2 (2001) and co-starred with Lisa Arturo in the comedy Wheelmen (2002), as the Vice President. He provided the voice of Keewaz in three episodes of Disney’s “The Legend of Tarzan” (2001), and had recurring roles in “The Division” (2002-2003), as Charles Haysbert, “Soul Food” (2001-2003), as Walter Carter #2, “That ‘70s Show” (2004), as Officer Kennedy, and “All of Us” (2003-2004), as Lucas.
From 2005 to 2006, Avery found himself appearing with Kyra Sedgwick and J.K. Simmons in the crime series “The Closer.” He also played General K’Vagh on two episodes of “Star Trek: Enterprise” (2005). Meanwhile, he nabbed various roles on the movies Lethal Eviction (2005), The Third Wish (2005), A Christmas Wish (2005), Restraining Order (2006) and Danika (2006). In Think Tank (2006), a comedy helmed and penned by Brian Petersen, he costarred as Uncle John, opposite Eric Artell as Charles. The same year, he also appeared as the presenter of the 2006 LA Area Emmy Awards.
Recently, the 59-year-old actor completed a comedy/sport film called Who’s Your Caddy (2007), starring Big Boi, Susan Ward and Jeffrey Jones. Additionally, he will play Rev. Matthews in the comedy/romance Divine Intervention (2007), the chancellor in director Michael Taliferro’s Steppin: The Movie (2007), and is in negotiations to portray High Father in the sci-fi film Harvest Moon (2007).