When James Avery died on New Year’s Eve, he had amassed an enviable career of television and stage appearances, including a performance as the legendary Howard University Law professor Charles Hamilton Houston in the 1993 PBS dramatization of Brown v. Board of Education. His lasting legacy, though, is as one on the most endearing black father figures in American television history. Twenty-three years after Avery introduced audiences to Judge Phillip Banks, the character still resonates as a counter to the myths of the absentee and irresponsible black father.
Debuting in January of 1990, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air revolved around a working-class teen Will (Will Smith), who was taken in by his wealthy kin. The series, which ran six seasons, was based on the real-life experience of producer Benny Medina. Avery quickly established himself as the typical television patriarch in the show, but as the character developed, many folk began to think of “Uncle Phil,” as Avery will forever be remembered, along the lines of classic father-figure TV characters such as James Evans Sr. (John Amos) and Heathcliff Huxtable (Bill Cosby). Indeed, as the traditional black family has largely disappeared from network television, Uncle Phil’s character resonates even more.
Though Uncle Phil was often uptight and overly formal—echoing Avery’s own desire to see more well-spoken, middle-class black men on television—the character’s backstory was that of a 1960s black activist, who entered the legal profession to continue the good fight.
Uncle Phil’s story mirrored that of Avery’s. After Avery hurt his knee and lost his scholarship to play football at HBCU Virginia State University, he enlisted for two tours of duty in Vietnam. Upon his return, as he told Denene Millner in New York’s Daily News in 1996, he began to write plays about the black power movement: “I was a cultural nationalist in my hippie days … I had a wonderful time. I was going to be a writer.” It was Avery’s time as writer, which he said was influenced by Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin and Paul Laurence Dunbar, that led him to acting.
There were other aspects of Avery’s background that influenced the work he did on The Fresh Prince. Avery was raised by his mother; his father was largely absent in his life. When Avery began his stint on The Fresh Prince, he reached out to his own dad, with whom he had not spoken with since his fifth birthday.
“I made a decision to find my father, and to talk to him and get to know him, because he was getting old, and it was time to resolve those issues, and I did,” Avery admitted in 1996, also noting that “there is one thing I learned from him, though, and that’s how not to be a father.”
The dynamic between Avery and his own dad was played out in a moving episode of The Fresh Prince, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse” (May 1994), about Will’s absentee father, Lou, portrayed by the legendary stage actor Ben Vereen, who briefly re-enters Will’s life, only to reject him once again.
In the episode’s closing segment, an emotional Will embraces Uncle Phil as he cries, “Why don’t he want me?” Yet the episode was a reminder of the relationships that have been the bulwark of black families; Will’s father might have left, but Uncle Phil more than fulfilled the role of his father figure.