After a regrettable year of lost celebrities—from James Gandolfini and Roger Ebert to Paul Walker and Peter O’Toole—the Grim Reaper claimed veteran character James Avery last night at the age of 68. Avery earned a place in the hearts of many 90’s children as Will Smith’s Uncle Phil on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a role that furthered the establishment of the black bourgeois made household by The Cosby Show.
To me, however, James Avery was not Uncle Phil—he was more than that. He was a face in the crowd, a true character player with multiple voiceover parts and guest stints on an enviable sea of TV series, not to mention the occasional film role. Before taking on the role of the Honorable Judge Banks, Avery was already being typecast as members of the judicial branch: he appeared as a judge on The Hogan Family, L.A. Law, and Night Court, played a district attorney in Hal Ashby’s riveting 8 Million Ways to Die. His follow-up series to The Fresh Prince had him as a Compton lawyer on the UPN’s two-season wonder Sparks. He was even the voice of a judge on a 1989 episode of The Real Ghostbusters, for fuck’s sake!
Before Marvel had a movie empire, Avery was the voice of Jim Rhodes on their animated Iron Man series, and before that, he voiced square-jawed mercenary Turbo on Rambo: The Force of Freedom, the long-forgotten, kid-friendly reimagining of America’s favorite Vietnam veteran:
Nothing, however, would solidify Avery’s clout as an off-camera presence as it would as the voice of Shredder on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:
I have a weird memory early on in life about being able to correlate Avery’s name from The Fresh Prince to Shredder. Was I able to hear Shredder in Uncle Phil? No. But the name match was enough, and this was years before IMDb was a thing. Shredder was a Japanese villain that looked Caucasian and provided with the voice of doom by Avery’s deep, foreboding voice. In an era where every cartoon villain was a megalomaniac fished out of a Bond movie, Avery gave Shredder a voice that was not only hellish but entertaining. The Shredder of the cartoon series was farther from the Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird creations, even from the portrayal in the first two live-action films. However, what mileage did come from his vocal performance was the same kind of effect Adam West’s campy version of Batman had in the 60’s: he became the commonplace, go-to envision.
Avery also had a nice amount of film roles in-between—perhaps his most memorable was as the eccentrically principled driving instructor Corey Haim encounters in License to Drive. In a one-scene role that absolutely had to have been fielded out to Keith David as well, Haimster is paired with the menacing, stressed-out Avery and told he’ll pass his road exam—if he can navigate the streets of Los Angeles without spilling over his precious cup of coffee. License to Drive is one of those anarchic, almost surreal 80’s comedies that would never get by today due to the kind of strange, morally ambiguous behavior that made the PG-13 rating mean something (and shit happens in it that is probably harder-edged than some of the debauchery on hand in your average modern R-rated comedy). Having the man who voiced Shredder put a teenager into reckless endangerment (considering he’d already fucked up his written exam) is bad enough, but to not put the coffee in a cup holder? With the risks of said hot beverage possibly causing pelvic burns and staining that stylin’ shirt Haim is wearing?
Marquee names will always get the most honor and discussion in death. Men like James Avery deserve just as much. Men this multifaceted are a rare breed, to be willing to accept the ideology of typecasting and only having their voice heard, turning that around and defining their careers around it.
I hope you dine on turtle soup in heaven, Mr. Avery. Rest in peace.
UPDATE: I have made a couple of minor tweaks to reflect that Avery passed at 68, not 65. Most news outlets are now confirming, including The New York Times.