Actor Nelsan Ellis, best known for his memorable portrayal of Lafayette Reynolds on HBO’s “True Blood,” has died at the age of 39.
His family spoke to reporters this week about the circumstances surrounding his death.
“Nelsan’s father, has bravely agreed for me to share the circumstances of Nelsan’s heart failure,” a family member told The Hollywood Reporter.
“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.”
According to news reports, Ellis’ manager, Emily Gerson Saines, confirmed the actor’s death in an email Saturday, July 8. 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 cast mate, Octavia Spencer mourned his death on Instagram. “My heart breaks for his kids and family,” the actress wrote.
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.