James Avery, the actor who played the family patriarch on NBC’s long-running The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, died December 31 in Glendale, CA after complications from open heart surgery, his publicist said today. Avery was 68. The classically trained actor had just completed shooting what will be his final role: a part in Zach Braff’s Kick starter-funded indie feature Wish I Was Here, which will premiere later this month at Sundance. Avery was born in Atlantic City in 1948 and eventually served in the Navy in Vietnam. He launched his career in entertainment after settling in San Diego after his discharge writing poetry and TV scripts for PBS, and his acting career began in 1980 with an uncredited role in The Blues Brothers movie, according to IMDb. He went on to appear in three decades worth of movies and TV shows — from The Jeffersons to LA Law to Grey’s Anatomy on the small screen — and also voiced numerous animated series including playing Shredder on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series in the mid-’80s and ’90s. But it was his role as Uncle Phil on Fresh Prince that put him on the map. The series ran from 1990-1996 and launched the acting career of Will Smith; his fellow Fresh Prince co-star Alfonso Ribeiro was one of the first to send his condolences via Twitter today. Avery’s death comes less than a week after the death of Fresh Prince co-creator/writer/producer Jeffrey Pollack at 54.