The actor Nelsan Ellis, best known for his portrayal of Lafayette Reynolds on HBO’s series True Blood, has died at the age of 39.
Ellis’ manager, Emily Gerson Saines, confirmed the actor’s death on Saturday. The Hollywood Reporter, which was first to report Ellis’s death, quoted her as saying he had died from complications of heart failure.
The Illinois-born actor played 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 was also a playwright and a stage director.
Ellis appeared as Martin Luther King Jr. in Lee Daniels’ film The Butler and as singer Bobby Byrd in the James Brown biopic Get On Up. He also appeared in The Help, and his fellow cast member Octavia Spencer mourned his death on Instagram. “My heart breaks for his kids and family,” she wrote.
Some fans tweeted one of his more famous scenes as Lafayette, in which the character marches out of the kitchen to confront some bigoted diners.
HBO released a statement saying the network was “extremely saddened” by Ellis’s 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’s 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 win 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 in him a love of theatre. He later attended the Juilliard performing arts school in New York City.
Also among those paying tribute to him were his True Blood co-stars Aisha Hinds, Michael McMillian, Lauren Bowles and Kristin Bauer.
Bauer wrote on Instagram: “One of the sweetest most talented men I’ve ever met. A terrible loss for all of us. Rest In Peace Nelsan. You will be missed. I don’t know how else to put words to this terribly sad news…”