UPDATED: The cause was complications from heart failure. His family later issued a statement attributing the heart failure to complications of longtime alcohol and drug abuse.
“We were extremely saddened to hear of the passing of Nelsan Ellis,” HBO said in a statement. “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 and executive producer Alan Ball echoed HBO’s epitaph in a statement of his own. “Nelsan was a singular talent whose creativity never ceased to amaze me,” said Ball. “Working with him was a privilege.”
Ellis’ “The Help” costar Octavia Spencer broke the news on Instagram Saturday morning, saying, “Just got word that we lost (Nelsan). My heart breaks for his kids and family.”
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 Julliard, where he 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 the span of seven seasons, Ellis walked away with a handful of 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.
“Crushed today by the loss of my friend and castmate Nelsan Ellis,” said “True Blood” costar Joe Manganiello. “He was a wonderful person, a pioneer, and a one of a kind artist. RIP.”
Ellis is survived by his grandmother, his father, and his son, Breon, as well as seven siblings.