LOS ANGELES — Hollywood was shocked Saturday when news broke that iconic actor Nelsan Ellis had passed away at just 39 years old. While the actor had a prolific resume, his career was undoubtedly defined by his role as Lafayette Reynolds on HBO’s “True Blood.”
Following his death after complications from heart failure, HBO and “True Blood” creator and executive producer Alan Ball each issued statements regarding Ellis’ sudden passing.
“We were extremely saddened to hear of the passing of Nelsan Ellis,” wrote HBO. “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.”
Ball echoed the network’s sentiments, adding, “Nelsan was a singular talent whose creativity never ceased to amaze me. Working with him was a privilege.”
Born in Harvey, Ill. in 1977, he and his siblings were moved to Alabama to live with their aunt before Ellis decided to move back to Chicago at age 15. At 17, he joined the Marines, but quit shortly after. After studying at Illinois State University, Ellis went on to get his B.F.A. from Juilliard, where he just so happened to be a class above his eventual “True Blood” costar, Rutina Wesley.
“The studies were so intense and the institution is so white, and I’m a black man from the South with a very specific vernacular and palate,” he recalled to Backstage in 2009. “I felt like an alien, and I struggled the first couple of years. But it transformed who I am as an actor and a person.”
After a single season on Fox’s “The Inside” opposite Rachel Nichols and Adam Baldwin and an episode of “Veronica Mars,” Ellis was then cast in the role that would define his career — gay short order cook Lafayette Reynolds.
“I have more makeup on than any of the females in the (True Blood) cast,” Ellis once famously noted to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Once they get me with the fake eyelashes and the eye makeup, I listen to some Rihanna and I’m there.”
After 80 episodes over seven seasons, Ellis walked away with a handful of sought after awards: two Satellite Awards, an EWwy for best supporting dramatic actor, and a NewNowNext Award for actor on the brink of fame.
Following the success of “True Blood,” Ellis moved from TV to film, landing key roles in movies like “Get On Up,” “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” “Little Boxes,” “The Butler, ” and “The Help.” Most recently, the actor could be seen in a lead role on CBS’ “Elementary,” including the just-wrapped fifth season.
Once the initial shock of his death wore off Saturday, Ellis’ “True Blood” castmates began mourning their friend on social media. Series leads Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer, and Joe Manganiello took to Twitter to voice their heartbreak.
— Anna Paquin (@AnnaPaquin) July 8, 2017
Nelsan Ellis was truly remarkable. A brilliant, charismatic, intelligent, soulful, wonderful dude. this is just completely tragic.
— Stephen Moyer (@smoyer) July 8, 2017
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
— Joe Manganiello (@JoeManganiello) July 8, 2017
Other “True Blood” actors like Deborah Ann Woll, Michael Raymond-James, and Kristin Bauer van Straten followed suit with similar messages on their personal pages.
— Deborah Ann Woll (@DeborahAnnWoll) July 8, 2017
Unbelievably sad news. Nelsan was such a sweet, gentle soul with an enormous talent. He will be missed greatly RIP https://t.co/NDdoaeM6Pj
— MichaelRaymond-James (@MRaymondJames) July 8, 2017
Stunned, devastated by the terrible news of @OfficialNelsan's passing. Nelsan was a genius and a beautiful soul. Sending love to his family.
— Michael McMillian (@McMillzz) July 8, 2017
— janina gavankar (@Janina) July 8, 2017
However, it wasn’t just former “True Blood” stars who were saddened by the loss of Ellis. Many other actors like Jessica Chastain, Chadwick Boseman, Sterling K. Brown, and Anna Camp joined the chorus of voices singing the actor’s prematurely-cut praises.
— Jessica Chastain (@jes_chastain) July 8, 2017
— Sterling K Brown (@sterlingkb1) July 8, 2017
Heart is shattered hearing of tragic news of #NelsanEllis passing. Devastated.He possessed such humility & fearless talent. U r deeply loved
— Michelle Forbes (@MishkaForbes) July 8, 2017
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.
— Anna Camp (@TheRealAnnaCamp) July 8, 2017
— Dulé Hill (@DuleHill) July 8, 2017
I can't believe this… What a loss. A genius actor and incredibly kind human being. Heartbreaking. https://t.co/vpGt19MbJF
— Brit Morgan (@MsBritMorgan) July 8, 2017
Additionally, Ellis’ “The Help” costar Octavia Spencer was actually the first person to address his passing on Instagram.
Just got word that we lost @nelsanellisofficial. My heart breaks for his kids and family. #RIPNelsanEllis. #brillIantactor #trueblood #getonup #thesoloist #thehelp. The first time I met him was on the set of the soloist and we were at rehearsal with a lot of the homeless cast members, and Nelsan was playing our counselor. He walked in wearing a pair of fitted camo cargo pants, a pristine white tshirt, a beret, and a denim jacket. Needless to say he was gorgeous, sexy. But his talent had me speechless. We became instant friends after that. He was sooooo funny. I miss him. #nelsanellis
Ellis is survived by his grandmother, his father, and his son, Breon, as well as seven siblings. In lieu of flowers, his family asks that donations be made to Jenesse.org or RestoreMinistriesChurch.org.