Actor James Avery Steps Onstage as 'Othello' James Avery is best known as Philip Banks, the wealthy uncle of Will Smith's character in the 1990s TV series The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. But his work encompasses a broader range, from movies to voicing animation to his latest role in a California stage production of William Shakespeare's Othello.
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Actor James Avery Steps Onstage as 'Othello'

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Actor James Avery Steps Onstage as 'Othello'

Actor James Avery Steps Onstage as 'Othello'

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Listeners may not recognize the name James Avery, but many will instantly recognize the actor's deep, commanding voice. His distinguished speech is heard in a number of cartoons, and he's also been featured on the television series "Soul Food" and "That '70s Show."

(Soundbite of theme music from "Fresh Prince of Bel Air")

GORDON: But James Avery is best known as Philip Banks, the wealthy uncle of Will Smith's character on the "Fresh Prince of Bel Air."

(Soundbite of "Fresh Prince of Bel Air")

Mr. JAMES AVERY: (As Philip Banks) So, young man, how'd it go at school today?

Mr. WILL SMITH: (As Will) I joined the poetry club.

Mr. AVERY: Excellent. I remember when I first got interested in poetry. So who's the girl?

GORDON: This summer, James Avery is playing the role of Othello, a far cry from the world of TV sitcoms. I asked whether his role on such a well-known TV show has been a blessing or a curse.

Mr. AVERY: It's a mixture of both. I loved that role, I loved the show, I loved the people that I worked with. I'm glad we had an impact. But there are lot of people who've been on successful shows and suddenly disappear because the powers that be refused to see them as anything else. The public will learn to see you as something else. You've already won their hearts as one thing. They will easily translate that caring into some--you know, to another role. But the powers that be, somehow they only see one thing. They don't see the 10 years of work that one did before one got "Fresh Prince," for example. They don't see the work and the variety of work that one is capable of doing as an actor, you know. They only see you as that person.

GORDON: How much is it a concerted effort on your part that the majority of the characters you play have a certain feel about them, have a certain want to be a charactered, educated black man?

Mr. AVERY: Well, see...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AVERY: Well, Groucho Marx said it best: `We know what you are. We're just haggling over price.' So basically, you know, I just like to be employed. Now the roles that I've gotten, I don't know, you know. I'm glad of them. I like them. You try to bring something there, but it's interesting, because I've lost roles on some black films because they say, `Well, no, he's too educated. He comes off too, you know, upscale, you know.' And I'm like, well, you know, this is very confusing to me.

GORDON: Or the bottom line, for some, `not black enough.'

Mr. AVERY: There you go, which--you know, I dealt with that in the '70s, OK? So I don't understand that. I said, `Anything I do is black.' I mean, I bring that to who and what I am. I mean, I grew up with a single working mother in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Come on now. Yeah, my family's from the South. My grandmother's from Virginia, that area. I've been down there. I know how to do all that. We share those experiences as a people. There's a variety that we have in expressing ourselves that denotes how deep we are as a people. So why should you--we're not always caricatures of who and what we are, and that's what bothers me a lot of times because in this town, there's such a thing as permission and prerogative. The majority has the prerogative to do whatever the hell they want. We're still asking for permission.

GORDON: You are on stage in California in "Othello." Talk to me about taking on Shakespeare. Was that daunting at all? Had you done this before?

Mr. AVERY: That's my training. I did "Othello" at the Oregon Shakes--I was at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for two and a half years. That's where my training is. You get--very seldom do you get a chance to use those things. I mean, I was excited...

GORDON: So is it...

Mr. AVERY: ...to visit the role again.

GORDON: Is it like an old shoe, and old loafer?

Mr. AVERY: No, it's never like that.

GORDON: Can you get into it comfortably?

Mr. AVERY: It's never like that. Shakespeare is never like that. There are always new discoveries, and to revisit this role is, you know, at this age--I mean, I did it 20 years ago, so at this age, there are other things that I can bring to it. There are other discoveries that I can make, and every time you do it, again, you make different discoveries.

(Soundbite of "Othello")

Unidentified Woman: (As Desdemona) What's the matter?

Mr. AVERY: (As Othello) That handkerchief which I so lov'd and gave thee, thou gav'st to Cassio.

Unidentified Woman: (As Desdemona) No, by my life and soul, send for the man and ask him.

Mr. AVERY: (As Othello) Oh, ho, ho, sweet soul, take heed, take heed of perjury, thou art on thy death-bed.

Unidentified Woman: (As Desdemona) Ay, but not yet to die.

Mr. AVERY: (As Othello) Ay, presently: Therefore, confess thee freely of thy sins; for to deny each article with oath cannot remove nor choke the strong conception I do groan withal. Thou art to die.

Unidentified Woman: (As Desdemona) Then Lord have mercy on me!

GORDON: You know, it's funny. We were talking to Denzel not long ago about being in "Julius Caesar," and he said, `You know, you really have to work another side of your brain that you don't always work.'

Mr. AVERY: You do. You really do. But see, Denzel--this is not a new experience for Denzel, because Denzel was in...

GORDON: No, not at all.

Mr. AVERY: ...you know, in a Shakespeare company with Morgan Freeman and these guys. See, the thing that bothers me with young actors, young actors of color specifically, is that they see movies and television, and they figure that's all it is to it. They have no respect for the craft. They want to be, you know, movie stars or whatever. And I worry that we're losing a certain quality, you know? Everyone that they see--Morgan, Denzel--didn't start out as movie stars. They started out as actors. They went to school or they went to--they studied, you know, and they brought that training into another media. But they had basic training, and a lot of young folks now--and I hate to sound like an ageist; I don't know--but they seem to want to skip over all the intervening steps. They want to go from A to Z by 2:00 this afternoon.

GORDON: Let me ask you this, and we appreciate you being real up front and...

Mr. AVERY: I'll never work in this town again. So much for my career. Oh, God! OK. Go ahead.

GORDON: Well, since you've signed the "Othello" contract, let me take you back to that and as,k is there any special significance to that particular role for you?

Mr. AVERY: "Othello" is an interesting play. The qualities that Othello has as a person are those things which lead to his downfall, his trust, his belief in friendship and his unfamiliarity with love. He's a noble hero, a tragic hero, being that his destruction is brought about by flaws, personal flaws within himself. And that's an interesting thing, because African-Americans as a people, our destruction is usually brought about by our own personal flaws or conflicts within ourselves. There's a fable in the writings of Josephus, one of the books that was taken out of the Bible, and in it a wise man dies and goes to Heaven and he sees two angels outside the Pearly Gates, one black and one white. And he asks St. Peter, `Why is that angel black?' And St. Peter says, `Because if he knew his light, he would outshine the stars.'

And it seems to me that our history has been one of us not knowing our light, people hiding our light from us, of us not valuing who and what we are as a people. We're an amazing people, but we don't know that. You know, you say, `Well, nobody's told us our history.' I say, `It's nobody's job to tell you your history. It's your job to find out who and what you are as a people. It's your job to pass that on to your children. It's your job to explain to them that you don't come from a race of victims, that you might have been victimized, but you're never victims. It's your job to explain to them that it's no longer about the white man; it's about you, what you're going to do with your time and with your children and with your life and that you have to take control over that.' There are too many African-Americans with too much money for us to have to go to anybody else for anything in terms of schools, in terms of scholarships, in terms of entrepreneurship, in terms of moving us along as a group to that place where we should be as a people.

I don't know what else to say, you know. Maybe I got off on a tangent. Maybe it's the water. I don't know. There you go.

GORDON: Well, but James, I will tell you, it's always a pleasure to talk with someone who comes on and really talks about some things outside of what you're selling on a particular day, and we thank you so very much for spending some time with us.

Mr. AVERY: Well, thank you.

GORDON: James Avery plays "Othello" at the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, California.

You can listen to an extended version of my conversation with Mr. Avery, as well as clips from his "Othello" at our Web site at npr.org.

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