‘True Blood’ Star Nelsan Ellis Dies at 39

Nelsan Ellis dead
Courtesy of HBO

UPDATED: Nelsan Ellis, famous for his role as Lafayette Reynolds on HBO’s “True Blood,” has died of complications from heart failure. He was 39.

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.”

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“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.

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“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.

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  2. Karen says:

    Mr. Ellis’ performance is the film “Secretariot”, gave that film its heart. Why that fikm is eliminated from his body of work is a mystery. Perhaps because it is a Disney film…and notably slanted in most of the performances. Mr.Ellis passing is so tragic.

  3. Deborah Patton says:

    Thank you all for your acknowledgemens of Nelsan Ellis. I knew him as Lafayette. He was brilliant! My 💜 breaks. Rest in Paradise Lafayette(Nelsan)😇

  4. Donna Bosserman says:

    Oh no lala, my fav! I think he was awesome!

  5. Sharron Webb says:

    Lafayette rest in peace.
    You will be truly missed as an actor.

  6. Madeline O'Henry says:

    Family and manager now say death was due to alcohol withdrawl. He tried and failed to quit drugs and alcohol addiction via supervised programs many times and had now tried quitting on his own with no medical supervision, hence the heart failure. So very sad. May he rest in peace.

  7. Ronin Wolf says:

    sleep well sweet prince

  8. dae giovanni says:

    take care of yourselves and your loved ones… you never know when they or you will be gone…

    i remember when all the celebs dying would be far, far, older than i… then less, and less old… and now, i am older than some of the ones dying.

    RIP at age 39, Nelsan. you’ll be missed.

  9. Mary Greene says:

    His talents will truly be missed. RIP Lafayette.

  10. Donna says:

    He will be greatly missed such a wonderful actor RIP

  11. Sarah E Pierce says:

    WOW IT IS SO HARD TO TAKE . HE WAS SUCH A GOOD ACTOR WAS LOOKING FORWARD TO SEE MORE OF HIS WORK. HE WILL TRULY BE MISS AND MY CONDOLENCE TO HIS FAMILY MAY HE R.I.P. GONE BUT NEVER FORGOTTEN.

  12. I’m having such a hard time with this. I loved his work, loved True Blood. Heart Failure at 39…… I can’t wrap my arms around this.

  13. gosseyn says:

    Such a great actor, such a great loss. I can’t believe he never won an Emmy.

  14. rarebird0 says:

    Stunned and saddened. He was a beautiful and talented man and deserved to be cast in so many roles–magnetic star quality.

  15. RF says:

    R.I.P. brother. You’re a gem.

  16. Nelsan
    I am truly heart broken to have lost such a talented actor. I came to know you in the true blood series and I loved the character you developed namely Lafayette. Thank you, for the hours I spent watching you excel at you craft God speed my friend.

  17. Guest says:

    We all die from complications of heart failure.

  18. Gloria Della says:

    Watched every episode of True Blood and was amazed by his acting abilities…. sympathies to his son and family.

    G, Della

  19. Yve says:

    Omg!!! So sad. I thought he was brilliant in everything he did!! Sympathy to his family and friends.😟😨

  20. Ann says:

    Wrong place. Best options live with relatives or go on welfare.

  21. Deborah Jones says:

    What does it matter why he quit marines or the reason if heart failure for his death.
    HE IS GONE !!!!!!!! People let him rest in peace. Mourn him but please don’t bad mouth him and I don’t even KNOW who he is. I am just a 60 yr old white woman tired of people talking bad about good people who apparently never hurt anyone else.

  22. clever login says:

    Favorite character in True Blood! RIP

  23. I I truely enjoyed your portayal of Lafayette on True Bloods ..may you Rest in Peace Nelsan Ellis…had been looking forward to seeing you in a long career ..you will be missed ..God Bless🙏

  24. Helen Roberts says:

    R.I.P Nelson you will be missed you played a brilliant part in True Blood I never missed an episode xxxx

  25. C L Weaver says:

    Thank you for sharing your Grace and talent. Good ha called home one of his Angels. RIP. You are love and will be missed.

  26. GONE TOO SOON REST IN PEACE MY FRIEND

  27. Bruce Paulson says:

    Nelsan was a great actor who was such a joy to watch in TRUE BLOOD. I am saddened by his passing.

  28. Magen Gratton says:

    Nelsan Ellis…black man in Hollywood…another “Black Celebrity” who has died of what they say to be “Heart Failure”….so many Heart Felled Black Celebrity Men have died recently…im just not going for that “Answer” Anymore….look deeper folks…look deeper….

  29. Mathilde Sharrocks says:

    I love True Blood and I love Lafayette!!! An original and irreplaceable talent!! RIP Handsome!! 💔✌🏾️

  30. Harriett Sharp says:

    You made watching the show a lot more enjoyable… I will miss you “”Lafayette””….RIP

  31. Carol Summers says:

    I just herd about a awesome actor Ellis Nelsan from True Blood death its a sad day when we lose someone so talented my heart goes out to his family he will be missed

  32. Kerri Ferguson says:

    R.I.P. Nelsan !!! Thanks for all the laughs and memories … Another Great One Taken Too Young :(

  33. Trevor Rude says:

    He was literally my favorite character…It saddens me to think he died so young. RIP Nelsan…You were truly an artist!

  34. L M Northcott says:

    That is so sad. Absolutely loved him in True Blood.R.I.P. xx

  35. Patricia says:

    This is shocking soooo young I adored him!

  36. No says:

    If you can’t speak well of the dead, say nothing. That you bothered to type to be cruel says more about you than him.

  37. Gloria J. says:

    My prayers goes out to his family. A true talent he left his mark and he will be missed. RIP

  38. Kevin D. says:

    Like it didn’t already suck hard enough to hear just a few days ago that super sweet Maria Menounos had a big-ass brain tumor removed only a month ago on her 39th birthday. Now this screwed up world really sticks it in and breaks it off and we lose the phenomenally gifted Nelsan Ellis at the same tender age. Does anyone recall his compassionate yet world-weary turn as the intake director of a homeless shelter/drug rehabilitation facility in the movie the “Soloist”, which starred Jamie Foxx and Robert Down-
    ey Jr.? Even alongside such impressive A-list talent, he still managed to stand out in a brief but soulfully
    earnest role.
    And yet God supposedly has a plan for them and therefore everything happens for a reason according
    to some of you out there. I call bullshit on that when babies, children and really cool people are involved.

  39. Angela says:

    Sorry drugs is not a cause. My brother the retired Homicide DT got it early. It was genetic in is case and caused by bad kidneys. Get some knowledge before trolling.

  40. I am so saddened to hear this. He was truly one of my favorite characters on “True Blood” and I looked forward to seeing more of him in the future. R.I.P., Mr. Ellis.

  41. Melissa Mason-Brown says:

    RIP Ellis! God has another angle. Bless his entire family. Keeping them all in prayer.

  42. tava says:

    so saddened to hear this news. You will be missed, RIP

  43. Lee says:

    Absolutely crushed. What a loss…damn

  44. KING Kong says:

    Hey maybe you guys should go debate this on whogivesashit.com, because the overall message was a guy DIED that’s the purpose and point of the article not about the f*****g ins and outs of the military.

  45. Lucero Martinz says:

    I will remberer him as my kind of dramatic sence of humor, loved the way he talked all, I’ll get in your face you disrespectful piece of work. I know it was for the show, but I would have made him my friend. R.I.P. Mr. Ellis was a wonderful Actor. Condolence To his entire Family A Fan Lucy Martinez in Tejas❤️✝❤️

  46. Such a damned shame. A boy should never lose his father at such an early age.

  47. JS says:

    39. So young. That’s so sad.

  48. P says:

    “Institution so white”???

    Stupid comment.

    • No says:

      When your world is one thing and then another, speaking about it is a comment on your experience. Please, let the dead rest.

    • Booty says:

      No, just a stupid person reading it.

      • P says:

        Ha! Sorry to upset you snowflake. If a white person would have made a comment about an institution being too black you and the rest of your liberal snowflake friends would be screaming he was racist and divisive.

  49. Seb says:

    Very sad news. I knew him and he was just a lovely and unique person. Humble, soft spoken, and soulful… He wasn’t corrupted by his success. He stayed true to his roots and helped support friends and family in every way he could. He tried to bring them all along on his success and raise them up. He loved his son. Sad and shocking loss to the acting community but particularly as a good person in the world…..

    • Jason says:

      You realize that just throwing in snowflake as an insult with no context is stupid right? He didn’t say “too white” he said “so white” it was a different world that he had to adjust to and that’s far from true. It is a white dominated profession.

      However, since that one line is what you focused on in an article dedicated to the passing of a beloved actor shows who the true snowflake is… So, any other words hurt your feelings?

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