If you’re a fan of ’90s pop culture, you probably have fond memories of the late James LaRue Avery as Uncle Phil, the stern yet lovable patriarch from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. However, his legacy reaches beyond Bel-Air. His contributions to the world of animated superheroes, to which he lent his resonant voice, are nothing short of remarkable. While most remember Avery for his portrayal of Philip Banks, the actor’s vocal talents took him from the opulent streets of Bel-Air to the high-tech labs of Stark Industries in Marvel’s 1994 Iron Man: The Animated Series.
Those who were growing up in the ’90s probably remember the series, which ran from 1994 to 1996 in syndication as part of The Marvel Action Hour. The syndicated television block, later called Marvel Action Universe, aired the episode of Iron Man: The Animated Series first, followed by an episode of The Fantastic Four. As it usually happens with animated shows from that era, Iron Man: The Animated Series was further backed by a toy line that featured many armor variants.
Avery’s fantastic voice talents landed him not one but several voice roles in Iron Man: The Animated Series. He was best known for voicing War Machine, a portrayal which, unfortunately, remains one of the most underrated performances in superhero animation. And, just like he did in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, where he served as a moral compass to his nephew (played by Will Smith), Uncle Phil provided James Rhodes, aka War Machine, with a forceful and imposing persona that often served as a voice of reason and restraint against Tony Stark/Iron Man’s more impulsive actions.
But War Machine isn’t the only character James Avery voiced in the Iron Man: The Animated Series. He also voiced villains Whirlwind and Backlash, stark contrasts to the military-disciplined War Machine. These portrayals showed Avery’s acting range and versatility, especially when it comes to Blacklash, who was a menacing and cold figure, a far cry from Avery’s often warm-hearted Uncle Phil. However, these weren’t actually his first or the best-known performances in animation.
Unfortunately, Iron Man: The Animated Series was subjected to a major overhaul between two seasons due to the change in the production studio. As a result, it suffered massive changes in its premise, tone, and general approach, which left the dissimilar seasons barely recognizable as being two halves of the same animated series. Avery’s tenure on the show, though leaving a lasting impression on the generations to come, was only limited to the first season, and he was replaced for all three roles due to undisclosed reasons.
Though Avery’s portrayal of James Rhodes/War Machine was limited to several episodes of Season 1, this doesn’t diminish his contribution. The role remains a memorable part of his extensive voice-acting portfolio. His longest and perhaps most memorable role in animated shows was as the Shredder, the main villain of the 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which, just like the Iron Man: The Animated Series, was made to promote the line of toys backing up the animated series.
As we previously discussed in the secret history of April O’Neil, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series was considerably different from the comics and much lighter in tone (look for The Last Ronin miniseries), but it helped propel the franchise into the mainstream consciousness and boost the sale of TMNT line of toys. James Avery voiced Shredder for the first seven seasons of the show, along with fellow Iron Man: The Animated Series actors Dorian Harewood, who replaced him as the voice of War Machine, and Jim Cummings, who was the occasional stand-in for the latter.
James Avery also appeared in several tonally lighter releases that would ultimately expand his animation repertoire. This includes Disney’s The Legend of Tarzan animated series that aired between 2001 and 2003, where he voiced Chief Keewazi. a role that exercised a blend of Avery’s warmth, wisdom, and commanding presence conveyed by his vocals. This portrayal resulted in the creation of a beloved and well-respected leader of the Waziri tribe, a group of natives who live deep in the jungle.
All these voice performances are a testament to Avery’s talent. He used his distinctive voice to bring to life such distinct characters, thus proving that a talented actor can transcend mediums and leave an indelible mark on the industry. So, the next time you rewatch 1994’s Iron Man: The Animated Series or get nostalgic about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, remember to appreciate the genius of James Avery.
The beloved James Avery was more than every dad’s dad in the ’90s; he was a prominent figure in the world of animated superheroes, and for that, he deserves every bit of recognition. The Uncle Phil/Iron Man connection isn’t just a fun superhero trivia fact; it’s a testament to the incredible range and talent of one of television’s greatest actors.