Actor Nelsan Ellis, who played Lafayette Reynolds on HBO's True Blood, has died. He was 39. In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, Ellis' manager Emily Gerson Saines said the actor, who grew up in Harvey, Ill., had passed away after "complications with heart failure. He was a great talent, and his words and presence will be forever missed."
Ellis, who attended Juilliard School, was best known for playing Lafayette for seven seasons on True Blood. It was Ellis' first major role and though he would go on to appear in The Help, Lee Daniels' The Butler, and CBS' Elementary. His portrayal of Lafayette that would become his most memorable, mostly because Lafayette was undefinable.
Ellis' character was gay, but he was so many other things. He was a short order cook, a medium, and a loyal friend. He was a prostitute and a drug dealer who made sure his customers weren't hurt by his product. In short, he was a complex LGBTQ character, which is rare on television.
In a 2008 interview with NewNowNext, Ellis talked about his concerns of playing his first gay character. "I didn’t care what straight people thought. I cared what gay people thought, to be quite honest," he said. "Because Alan didn’t want a caricature. He said that quite early on, because I was a caricature the first audition. My concern was if I was going to offend anybody. I don’t want to offend nobody."
To make sure that didn't happen, Ellis told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014 he based the character on his late mum, which made him love Lafayette even more. It seemed to work, since Lafayette died in the books, but Ball kept him around in the show because he was such a fan favourite.
"My mother was a tomboy, and Alan Ball wanted this character to be feminine and masculine," he said. "Every time I play this character — because my mother died — I have a piece of my mama, I have a piece of her memories and who she was. She died in the third season, and my favourite part of Lafayette is every time I play him, I'm doing my mother."
In a statement, HBO expressed its sadness over the news. "We were extremely saddened to hear of the passing of Nelsan Ellis," HBO said. "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 Alan Ball also released a statement, saying, "Nelsan was a singular talent whose creativity never ceased to amaze me. Working with him was a privilege."
Ellis is survived by his family, including his son. Ellis' final film True To The Game is set to hit theatres this September.
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