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James Avery and Will Smith. Picture: Ron Tom/AP

James Avery, the bulky character actor who laid down the law as the Honorable Philip Banks in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, has died.

Avery's publicist, Cynthia Snyder, says Avery died on Tuesday in Glendale, California, following complications from open heart surgery. He was 65.

Avery played the family patriarch and a wealthy lawyer and judge on the popular TV comedy, which launched the acting career of Will Smith as Banks's troublemaking nephew.

Avery, who liked to say that the way to be an actor was to act, had a busy and diverse career.

His TV credits included Grey's Anatomy, NYPD Blue and Dallas. Among his many films were Fletch, Nightflyers and 8 Million Ways to Die. H was also the voice of Shredder in the animated TV series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

According to Snyder, Avery will be seen in the film Wish I Was Here, directed by Zach Braff and scheduled to premiere later this month at the Sundance festival.

Avery grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and served in the navy in Vietnam in the late 1960s.

He later settled in California and studied drama and literature at the University of California at San Diego.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara, and stepson Kevin Waters.