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Rest in Peace, Uncle Phil

January 1, 2014


Earlier today, actor Alfonso Ribeiro (who played Carlton in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), confirmed the death of his close friend, James Avery. You may not recognize that name at first, but you might be aware of his iconic roles as Shredder from the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV show, and perhaps his biggest role — Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince.

Uncle Phil is often cited as one of the most positive role models in television history. He’s a strong family man who deals with unexpected situations in ways many of us couldn’t possibly fathom. He’ll stop at nothing to defend those he loves, and isn’t afraid to be stern and frank when the situation arises.

But beyond the Banks family in the show, James Avery also had a profound impact on my childhood. It may sound silly to some, praising an actor for playing a fake character on television. But as a fan of the medium, I’d argue that not only are select works important, they’re also a reflection of life itself. Many people have experienced a fair share of the trials and tribulations of the cast on Fresh Prince, myself included, and seeing someone else go through them can help us grow as human beings, learn to cope, and adapt to help others in the same situation.

So what’s my story? Without going into all the details, my father walked out when I was a teenager. It was devastating for many reasons, but most of all, it was tough just not having someone there for an extended period of time — a hole that wasn’t filled until I met my wife some years later.

There’s one particular scene that pretty much encapsulates that feeling on Fresh Prince. Often regarded as one of the “top ten saddest moments on TV,” Will Smith’s character on the show has another encounter with his on again, off again father leaving him yet again, and deals with all of the emotions and baggage that go along with it.

Take a few minutes to watch one of the best moments in television.

In this situation, Avery’s character tries to help Will, saying, “Will..if there was something I could do…” — with the likely implication that he can’t actually do anything. The thing is — he did. He was there. And he inspired me to be there for others who may not have someone to fall back on.

I cannot claim to know James Avery personally. I’ve never met him. But from everything I’ve heard (including the aforementioned tweet from Ribeiro), he was a father figure to everyone he knew. Based on my experience, that isn’t hard to believe.

Rest in peace, Uncle Phil.

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