james avery*It’s telling just how sad the unfortunate death of the great character actor James Avery made us last week.

Of all the sitcom characters that graced our screen through the 1990s, there were few that were as lasting as the memorable ensemble that made up the cast of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

Will Smith might have been the breakout star, but Avery was at the heart of that amazing cast. “Uncle Phil” was the constant target of Will’s jokes – most notably for his girth – but he was a layered, rich character underneath that, a loving family man and upstanding judge who had a fascinating history with the civil rights movement.

The show’s dramatic moments usually revolved around Phil – witness his shining moment when Carlton and Will were jailed (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AW9pklBXqk4) or his fatherly embrace in the aftermath of Will’s disappointment over his long-lost dad’s return (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ZHk1dpwC3w).

In the midst of the show’s other stars – the sarcastic butler Geoffrey, scatterbrained Hilary, sweet Ashley and preppy Carlton – Avery present a lovably gruff soul to the audience. After all, was there anything funnier than watching him hurl Jazzy Jeff out the front door?

More than that, Avery was part of a truly groundbreaking show. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was one-of-a-kind, a truly funny sitcom with an up-and-coming rap star at its core that helped to bring this urban mainstream to a primetime NBC audience. It was a trailblazing program, and it’s one that only gets funnier and funnier with every year that’s passed – and Avery was right in the middle of it. Take some time this weekend to watch a few episodes and appreciate his talents. Goodbye, Uncle Phil / James, and thanks for everything.