New York — Actor Nelsan Ellis, best known for his memorable portrayal of Lafayette Reynolds on HBO's True Blood, has died at the age of 39.
Ellis' manager, Emily Gerson Saines, confirmed the actor's death in an email Saturday. The Hollywood Reporter, which was first to report Ellis' death, quoted her as saying the actor died from complications of heart failure.
The Illinois-born actor, who studied at Juilliard, played the role of Lafayette, a gay short order cook, on the HBO drama from 2008 to 2014, and more recently appeared in the CBS detective series Elementary. He also was a playwright and a stage director.
Ellis appeared as Martin Luther King, Jr in Lee Daniels' The Butler, and as singer Bobby Byrd in the James Brown biopic Get On Up.
He also appeared in The Help, and his castmate Octavia Spencer mourned his death on Instagram. "My heart breaks for his kids and family," the actress wrote.
Several other actors paid tribute to Ellis on social media.
The few times I got to sit w/ Nelsan Ellis, he was incredibly sincere, thoughtful and generous. His tremendous talent spoke for itself.
One of the first places we shot on the pilot of True Blood was Sam Merlotte’s Bar. The kitchen Suzuki Ingerslev built in Merlotte’s had a walk in freezer & working gas burners. It remained my favourite set throughout all 7 seasons - when shooting in Louisiana many months later she took us to the actual bar she had used as inspiration. It was almost as amazing as our Merlotte’s, but not quite - They didn’t have a Lafayette. In the scene that was being shot that day, Lafayette, a male cross-dressing short order cook in the show, was expounding on his theory of men’s fear of the female anatomy. specifically, the vagina. ‘I know every man whether straight, gay or George MotherFuckin’ Bush is afraid of the pussy..’ I’m not sure I have ever seen, before or since, people crowd around a monitor at video village with their hands clapped to their mouths from shock, sheer laughter and wonder as the actor playing Lafayette jiggled and shook and humped the butchers block to get his point across. it was completely original, funny, sardonic, risqué and brilliant. That was Nelsan Ellis. All of the above. I turned to Alan Ball when the scene was finished and whispered… ‘you can’t kill him!’ (Lafayette’s death at the of the first book is the cliffhanger that leads to Book 2… ) Nelsan Ellis was the only actor in the 7 years of True Blood whom Alan allowed to improvise. Actually, I’m going to take that back. It wasn’t that Alan allowed him to do it, it was more that when Nelsan inhabited the world of Lafayette, he quite literally COULDN’T STOP himself. It was like he was possessed. In actuality Nelsan was quiet, smart, thoughtful, warm and kind. A published playwright himself. I think it would be fair to say that he taught all of us that intent and courage and fearlessness and freedom are the aspects of playing make-believe that spark the corners of the room where the dark is most impenetrable; to shine a light on those corners within ourselves is the very reason we go back time and again to Movies, TV shows and Theatre. To see that spark ignited. Nelsan had that electricity in an abundance I have rarely seen. I can’t believe he’s gone. #nelsanellis
A post shared by Steve Moyer (@stephenmoyer) on
Crushed today by the loss of my friend and castmate Nelsan Ellis. He was a wonderful person, a pioneer, and a one of a kind artist. RIP pic.twitter.com/fvtquhIac7#RIP pic.twitter.com/QHTbTGRATO
My heart is broken today over the loss of @OfficialNelsan I was in complete awe of your talent and so honored to have known your kindness.
On Twitter, some fans posted one of his more famous scenes as Lafayette, where the character marches out of the kitchen to confront some bigoted diners.
HBO released a statement saying the network was "extremely saddened" by Ellis' death.
"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,'" the statement read. "Nelsan will be dearly missed by his fans and all of us at HBO."
True Blood creator Alan Ball called Ellis "a singular talent whose creativity never ceased to amaze me. Working with him was a privilege."
In a 2012 TV interview in Chicago, Ellis recalled that it took four auditions for him to nail the role of Lafayette. At first, he said, he was playing the role as a caricature, and was told to "go back to the drawing board and figure it out."
He then began to channel his mother. "Once I started to act like my Mama, my fourth audition, I got the part," he said.
Born in Harvey, Illinois, Ellis attended Thornridge High School, where he credited teachers with instilling the craft of theater in him. He later attended Juilliard in New York City.