Nelsan Ellis, known affectionately by many for his role as Lafayette Reynolds on HBO’s True Blood, has died after complications from heart failure at age 39.
News of Ellis’ passing was first made public by his The Help costar Octavia Spencer, who took to Instagram on Saturday morning, saying, “Just got word that we lost [Ellis]. My heart breaks for his kids and family.” Ellis’ manager Emily Gerson Saines also confirmed the actor’s passing.
Ellis was born in Harvey, Illinois, but moved to Alabama for a time after his parents divorced. At age 21, he was accepted into the Julliard School’s Drama Division, where he would go on to write and perform his semi-autobiographical play Ugly. Ellis would go on to earn the Lincoln Center’s Martin E. Segal Award Ellis and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Juilliard in 2004.
Ellis’s diverse film and television work also included his role as Shinwell Johnson on CBS’s Elementary, as well as roles in films such as The Butler, Get On Up, and The Stanford Prison Experiment. But it would be his turn as Lafayette Reynolds on True Blood that Ellis would be most remembered for: with Lafayette, he gave fans a flamboyantly proud and brave gay man living in the deepest parts of Louisiana who refused to be a victim. He proved that there was so much more to the character than just playing the role of Sookie’s “gay best friend” and deserved a longer life than the one given him in the book series.
Most importantly, he was a sign of pop culture progress for the LGBTQ community: a well-rounded, fleshed-out gay character with both strengths and weaknesses on a major network’s show during a time when gay characters were still few and far between. Ellis would play the role from the show’s premiere in 2008 until it ended in 2014, and earned a 2008 Satellite Award from the International Press Academy for his performance as Lafayette.
True Blood creator and executive producer Alan Ball issued a statement earlier today expressing his loss:
“Nelsan was a singular talent whose creativity never ceased to amaze me. Working with him was a privilege.”
HBO also expressed their condolences and sadness over Ellis’s passing:
“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.”
Ellis leaves behind a son, Breon, as well as seven brothers and sisters.
“I think in this country, anybody can do whatever they want to do as long as it’s not hurting anybody else or violating the laws of society. If you want to get married to a man then get married to a man. If two women want to get married they should get married. It’s not hurting me. The beautiful thing about this country is that I can be a Christian and feel free to do so. Or somebody cannot be a Christian and do whatever that entails. Or somebody can be a Christian and still be gay and I support it.” – Nelsan Ellis, Vibe Magazine