Nelsan Ellis, Actor In True Blood & Elementary, Dead At 39

Photo: HBO/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
A new statement from Ellis's family, released to The Hollywood Reporter, attributes cause of death to alcohol withdrawal.
The statement reads: "Nelsan’s father has bravely agreed for me to share the circumstances of Nelsan’s heart failure. Nelsan has suffered with drug and alcohol abuse for years. After many stints in rehab, Nelsan attempted to withdraw from alcohol on his own. According to his father, during his withdrawal from alcohol he had a blood infection, his kidneys shut down, his liver was swollen, his blood pressure plummeted, and his dear sweet heart raced out of control.
"On the morning of Saturday July 8th, after four days in Woodhull Hospital, Nelsan was pronounced dead. Nelsan was a gentle, generous and kind soul. He was a father, a son, a grandson, a brother, a nephew, and a great friend to those that were lucky enough to know him. Nelsan was ashamed of his addiction and thus was reluctant to talk about it during his life. His family, however, believes that in death he would want his life to serve as a cautionary tale in an attempt to help others."
This story was originally published July 8, 2017 at 4:30 p.m.
Actor Nelsan Ellis, who played Lafayette Reynolds on HBO's True Blood, has died. He was 39. In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, Ellis' manager Emily Gerson Saines said the actor, who grew up in Harvey, Ill., had passed away after "complications with heart failure. He was a great talent, and his words and presence will be forever missed."
Ellis, who attended Juilliard School, was best known for playing Lafayette for seven seasons on True Blood. It was Ellis' first major role and though he would go on to appear in The Help, Lee Daniels' The Butler, and CBS' Elementary. His portrayal of Lafayette that would become his most memorable, mostly because Lafayette was undefinable.
Ellis' character was gay, but he was so many other things. He was a short order cook, a medium, and a loyal friend. He was a prostitute and a drug dealer who made sure his customers weren't hurt by his product. In short, he was a complex LGBTQ character, which is rare on television.
In a 2008 interview with NewNowNext, Ellis talked about his concerns of playing his first gay character. "I didn’t care what straight people thought. I cared what gay people thought, to be quite honest," he said. "Because Alan didn’t want a caricature. He said that quite early on, because I was a caricature the first audition. My concern was if I was going to offend anybody. I don’t want to offend nobody."
To make sure that didn't happen, Ellis told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014 he based the character on his late mom, which made him love Lafayette even more. It seemed to work, since Lafayette died in the books, but Ball kept him around in the show because he was such a fan favorite.
"My mother was a tomboy, and Alan Ball wanted this character to be feminine and masculine," he said. "Every time I play this character — because my mother died — I have a piece of my mama, I have a piece of her memories and who she was. She died in the third season, and my favorite part of Lafayette is every time I play him, I'm doing my mother."
In a statement, HBO expressed its sadness over the news. "We were extremely saddened to hear of the passing of Nelsan Ellis," HBO said. "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 creator Alan Ball also released a statement, saying, "Nelsan was a singular talent whose creativity never ceased to amaze me. Working with him was a privilege."
Ellis is survived by his family, including his son. Ellis' final film True To The Game is set to hit theaters this September.
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