Nelsan Ellis, the actor best known for his portrayal of Lafayette Reynolds on HBO’s “True Blood,” has died at 39. The reported cause was complications due to heart failure.
Ellis burst into popular consciousness with the show’s debut in 2008. Introduced almost immediately, Lafayette was a flamboyant and outspoken short-order cook at Merlotte’s Bar and Grill in the fictional town of Bon Temps, La. The character, who was gay, brought pointed humor to Alan Ball’s acclaimed vampire drama, which many considered an analogy for the gay rights struggle.
Lafayette and Ellis became instant fan favorites. Lafayette was a key character through the seventh and final season of the series, which was based on novels by Charlaine Harris.
As news of Ellis’ death quickly spread, a scene in which Lafayette he marches out from behind the griddle to confront a trio of homophobic diners was widely circulated on Twitter. In a statement, Ball called Ellis “a singular talent whose creativity never ceased to amaze me. Working with him was a privilege.”
HBO echoed Ball’s sentiments in its own statement: “We were extremely saddened to hear of the passing of Nelsan Ellis. Nelsan was a long-time member of the HBO family whose groundbreaking portrayal of Lafayette will be remembered fondly within the overall legacy of True Blood. Nelsan will be dearly missed by his fans and all of us at HBO.”
“True Blood” co-star Anna Paquin tweeted: “It was an utter privilege to work with the phenomenally talented and deeply kind soul. @OfficialNelsan I’m devastated by his untimely death.”
Most recently, Ellis had joined the season five cast of CBS’ “Elementary,” playing Shinwell Johnson, a former drug dealer (and former patient of Lucy Liu’s Watson) trying to find redemption.
Ellis was born in 1977 in Harvey, Ill., to a single mother. He moved to a poor suburb of Birmingham, Ala., where he was raised by his grandmother. As a teenager, he moved back to Illinois to live with his maternal aunt and attend Thornridge High School, where he discovered his love of acting.
After a brief stint in the United States Marines, Ellis enrolled at Illinois State University before being accepted, at age 21, to the Juilliard School of drama. He graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in 2004.
While at Juilliard, Ellis wrote a semi-autobiographical play, “Ugly,” which was performed at the school and earned him a Martin E. Segal Award from Lincoln Center, which provides financial assistance and recognition to promising young artists.
Ellis appeared on the big screen in 2009 in “The Soloist” alongside Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx, and in the Academy Award-winning film “The Help” in 2011. He also played the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” in 2013.
Octavia Spencer, who co-starred in “The Help,” remembered Ellis in a tweet: “Just got word that we lost @OfficialNelsan. My heart breaks for his kids and family.…”
Ellis’ TV credits include the Fox series “The Inside,” UPN’s “Veronica Mars” and the HBO film “Warm Springs” with Kenneth Branagh, Cynthia Nixon and Kathy Bates.
Ellis is survived by seven siblings as well as his son, Breon.