Uncle Phil from ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ may be the best TV dad in history — this scene proves it
James Avery, Will Smith, Ben Vereen and the fatherhood scene that still makes LeBron and Dwyane Wade cry
First things first rest in peace Uncle Phil / For real, you the only father that I ever knew …
— J. Cole, “No Role Modelz” (2014)
Tatyana Ali is fighting back tears, and it’s been nearly half a decade.
“James Avery taught me that acting is actually a noble profession, and that there’s great purpose in it,” says Ali. “If we took it seriously enough, we could help our people. We could lift them up … make people see who we really are.” Ali of course played Ashley Banks, the youngest daughter of Vivian and Philip Banks and the first cousin of the title character on the landmark ‘90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Ali remembers Avery as a man who understood the importance of representation and felt it was a kind of spiritual obligation. “Uncle Phil” was a former hippie-activist in the ‘60s turned Princeton-educated Los Angeles judge who was down to quote Malcolm X and call the criminal justice system out on its flaws at a moment’s notice. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was hip-hop in spirit, from the title on down.
The country was coming off nine years of Cliff Huxtable, who rose to power in hip-hop’s infant stages (1984-92) but was never hip-hop’s father figure. That title goes to James Avery as Uncle Phil, even if it wasn’t about fandom. “We didn’t really speak a lot about hip-hop,” says DJ Jazzy Jeff, Will Smith’s real-life musical partner who played the role of Will’s friend “Jazz” who would frequently, and literally, be thrown out of the Bel-Air mansion by Uncle Phil. “But he loved Will and I. He loved what we were doing. He loved the fact ‘Summertime’ encompassed ‘Summer Madness’ by Kool & the Gang.”
Fresh Prince, a collaboration of Quincy Jones and the then-married team of Andy and Susan Borowitz, was based loosely on the life of Will Smith’s then-manager Benny Medina (and on the lifestyle of Jones’ own family) and ran on NBC from 1990-96. NBC was wary of a project starring a rapper, and the show was derided at first by some for a lack of grit. Ultimately, critiques proved ignorant, as the sitcom became part of the cultural DNA of the 1990s. “The Cosbys were affluent,” said Quincy Jones in 2015, “but the Banks’ were wealthy. I don’t think you’d ever seen a wealthy African-American family on television until Fresh Prince, and you definitely hadn’t seen a kid from the hip-hop generation until Fresh Prince.”
There are many classic episodes of The Fresh Prince — like “72 Hours,” in which Carlton goes to Compton. In “My Brother’s Keeper,” it’s Will vs. Allen Payne with a Georgetown basketball scholarship on the line. And “Banks Shot” houses the classic “Geoffrey, break out Lucille” line. But there’s no singular installment that holds the significance of the “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse” episode. It aired on May 9, 1994, in the middle of the fourth season, and in it, Will’s father, Lou (played by Ben Vereen), re-enters his life after 14 years — only to abandon him again.
“I shed a tear or 2 every time this episode comes on!” LeBron James tweeted in April. “Can’t help it. I’ve had that same feeling my whole life.” Dwyane Wade responded to his friend James, but it wasn’t the first time he’d mention the episode, mentioning the emotions that swelled inside him upon seeing Will collapse into his uncle’s arms.
The last scene is the most brutally honest in the series’ most emotionally jarring episode. And in the streaming and social media era in which we live, it never goes away. LeBron James grew up without his father, while Wade’s was active in his life. Their upbringings are very different, but their emotional attachments to the scene are almost identical. It’s because the scene represents a deep, complex and universal pain. And James Avery is, at center, a rock. The dad everyone wishes they had.
James Avery passed away on New Year’s Eve 2013 after complications from open-heart surgery. He was 68. A Suffolk, Virginia, native who served in the U.S. Navy, Avery was a classically trained actor with more than 175 credits — L.A. Law (in which he also played a judge), The Closer, Star Trek: Enterprise, 8 Million Ways To Die — to his name. Prior to Fresh Prince, Avery’s most recognizable role was as the voice of the villain Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for 106 episodes between 1987 and 1993.
He was Judge Philip Banks/Uncle Phil for six seasons though, and Avery embraced the younger cast members as extensions of his own family. Even when not in scene, he referred to both Ali and Karyn Parsons (“Hilary Banks”) as “Daughter.”
The scene between Avery and Smith helped cement Smith as the kind of dramatic actor who would go way beyond being a funny comedian and good rapper. He’d already done Six Degrees of Separation (1993) to great reviews and portrayed himself on shows like Blossom. Ahead of him was 1996’s Independence Day, 1998’s Enemy of the State and the Bad Boys and Men in Black franchises. Smith was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in 2002’s Ali and 2007’s The Pursuit of Happyness. But his performance alongside Avery in “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse” is an undeniable turning point in Will Smith’s career. Everyone on set knew it the moment it happened.
Ali remembers Avery’s boundless support of Smith. “James [was] telling him, ‘Don’t try to cry. Try not to cry. … His performance just completely took on a whole new light.” The episode, and the final scene in particular, has become a cultural phenomenon. A moment. Will’s titanic final words, “How come he don’t want me, man?” stick to the ribs of an entire generation.
Will and Uncle Phil traditionally had scenes where their personalities and egos clashed. The results were usually hilarious. But it’s in this scene that Uncle Phil becomes Uncle Phil. His character lived in all of our households. Regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or whatever difference that makes the human experience unique. The love, respect and adoration Uncle Phil exhibited and commanded universally appealed to the most innate human desire: to be loved and protected. And in this scene, an older black man was comforting a younger black man during a time of irreconcilable grief and heartbreak. Rare for television, for mainstream media. Rare.
“It brings tears to your eyes,” says Shelley Jensen (Friends, Hannah Montana, The Jamie Foxx Show), who directed 87 episodes of The Fresh Prince, including “Papa.” “To get there for an actor, on Will’s part, who is a comedian — and at that time in his career wasn’t known as a dramatic actor — James helped him so much from an acting standpoint.”
Joseph Marcell portrayed Geoffrey the butler on Fresh Prince. “[James Avery] and I actually met when I came to America,” says Marcell from London. The two, both smoking cigarettes when their paths first crossed, quickly bonded. “One classical actor from one side of the world, and another one from the other side. And both black. It was magical.”
All them boys in my will, all them boys is my Wills/ Anything happen to pop, then I got you like Uncle Phil …
— Drake, “5 AM In Toronto” (2013)
Twenty-two years after Prince’s final episode, Avery is referred to by castmates with reverence. Larger than life. Loving. Gentle as a lamb. Jazz connoisseur. Cultured. Endless wisdom. “James Avery was the one who gave me my appreciation for travel,” says the legendary DJ Jazzy Jeff of the man he saw as a kindred spirit and big homie. And one with whom he shared a deep, almost spiritual appreciation for jazz music. “He would talk about how every summer he and a bunch of his friends would get in a car and drive cross country. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. He gave me an appreciation for leaving … your comfort zone. … He was a real, actual father figure on [the set of] that show.”
“James and I hit it off when I auditioned,” says Daphne Maxwell Reid, who played Avery’s wife, Vivian “Aunt Viv” Banks, from 1993-96. “Then I fell in love with the man. He was just such a dear. We’d dance down the halls together because he was a great dancer. His talent … his sincerity, he was a nice person … a smart person.” It was her character who said to Vereen’s, “Lou, if you walk out of Will’s life now, don’t you ever come back.” And then Avery picked up the ball with that offhand but strict, “Sit down.”
Avery knew, Ali says, that being a black actor, portraying a black father on a television show came with responsibility. Every scene, every relationship Uncle Phil had with his kids, his nephew, his butler, his wife or his mother — all of it would be reflective of actual black families in the world. “He knew that kids would be watching,” says Ali. “Those meaningful moments, the heart of the show. He was the heart of the show.”
There Fresh Prince dealt with heavy topics before — “Just Say Yo” (season three, episode 19) and “Blood Is Thicker Than Mud” (season four, episode eight). Donald Trump even appeared in a 1994 episode that is, if nothing else, ironic (“I like to keep a low profile,” said Trump) and prophetic (“Thank you for ruining my life!” says Ali). But for the entirety of the series up to that point, Will’s single-parent household had been represented by the close relationship he had with his mother, “Vy,” portrayed by Vernee Watson. Taking on the issue of black single-parent households before a massive American audience was complex. Everyone had to play their part.
“Marcell and, of course, Alfonso [Ribeiro] were very funny in that episode. So was Karyn Parsons,” Jensen remembers. “They had strong jokes. … You needed them because you were about to get hit in the face with this hard story. That’s what makes good TV.”
Legend has it that the scene was largely freestyled, and that Will Smith the actor drew from personal experience. Smith was involved in the creation of the episode, as he was with each. But this one held a special significance for him. Cast members recall a collaborative process during all six seasons being fruitful and commonplace. The actors mostly appreciated the perspective of the writers, while the writers mostly embraced the feedback from the black cast. Both Smith and Avery were very much involved in the curation of “Papa.” Smith’s relationship with his real-life father (who died in November 2016) was a far cry from that with his on-screen father, Vereen — whom Smith requested personally for the role in 1994. It’s the close relationship Smith had with his father, and the respect he had for him, that Smith tapped into. And it was more than powerful.
“A big reason Will was able to pull that scene off was the relationship he had with his dad. He could not necessarily draw on personal [experience], but the exact opposite,” says Jazzy Jeff. “When you have that relationship, and then you realize what it would be like if you didn’t, then that’s enough to bring you to tears also.”
During the taping, Avery was in constant communication with Will about how he might react. How he might respond. How he might block his own emotions and let the character’s emotions overtake him. There was a process involved. “We didn’t get that [scene where Will breaks down] until the night we shot it,” says Jensen. “It was very difficult for Will to get to that place.”
What happened in the moment was pure emotion. It wasn’t scripted for Will to say, “To hell with him!” in reaction to his father leaving him once again — this time for good. No one expected what they saw.
“I remember being on the set when the scene went down,” says Parsons. “It was devastating. I wasn’t expecting it. It hadn’t gone like that in rehearsal.”
“That line [asking Avery], ‘How come he don’t want me?’ I get chills because that’s the saddest childlike expression. It’s not intellectualizing. ‘Why does he do this all the time?’ ‘Why is he this way?’ He’s not saying any of the cliché statements. It was such a raw expression. He was taking the blame — like it’s me. ‘How come he don’t want me?’ I think that’s what rings true for a lot of people, is that child inside of them that feels somebody is rejecting them because they’re not enough. … It’s so painfully sad because it had nothing to do with him. That’s what I think a lot of people carry in their life…that kind of trauma from having somebody leave you, and [you] feel like it’s because of you. Even as they grow into adulthood, they still have that little person in them that feels so vulnerable.”
Reid says, “It was just so painful to watch. When Will finally collapsed into James’ arms, it was just—everybody was crying.”
“Everyone one of us was teary-eyed because it was real. It was raw emotion,” says Jensen. “At that point it wasn’t acting, and that’s the best acting you can do.” The episode, specifically its final scene, is a diamond of Fresh Prince’s legacy. A staple that, for some, still comes with present-day consequences. “I can’t tell you,” says Vereen, “how many women have come at me and yelled at me for leaving Will.”
For his “daughter,” Ali, she always remembers Avery’s advice that artists should be educated so that when they do speak, they “heal” and “push things forward.” For Parsons, his other daughter, the importance of individuality and becoming comfortable in one’s own skin is a foundational pillar of her life — thanks to Avery. But for Marcell, Avery left him friendship.
Whenever he visited America, Marcell stayed with Avery and his wife, Barbara. “He wouldn’t let me get a hotel or apartment,” says Marcell with a laugh. It was Marcell and Barbara who took Avery to an emergency room near Glendale, California, in November of 2013. He visited his friend every day for a month. Sometimes with Barbara. Sometimes on his own. Avery’s last words to him still make him laugh because they remind him of the friend who he worked with to make America laugh for six years. And also the vibrant friend who “absolutely savored life.”
“The last thing he actually said to me was, ‘Hey, man, can you make them bring my dogs to me?’ ” Marcell recalls. “ ‘And could you get me [some] McDonald’s?’ ”
Avery is unique in the lineage of powerful black television fathers like John Amos (Good Times), Sherman Helmsley (The Jeffersons) and even the recently convicted Bill Cosby (The Cosby Show). Philip Banks was vulnerable because of his weight, the target of constant jokes from his butler and his nephew, yet he could dish it out as well. There was never a dull moment with Uncle Phil, not because of the way he spoke but because of the way he carried himself. His confidence was soothing. His love, unlike Cliff Huxtable’s, felt available to all, and all-encompassing.
“Philip Banks was Philip Banks,” Marcell says with a profound sense of pride. “That is his legacy. … He just was.”