Chicago actor Nelsan Ellis dies at 39

Nelsan Ellis

Harvey-born Nelsan Ellis, who rose to fame as the character Lafayette on HBO’s True Blood, has died at the age of 39.

Variety confirms the cause was complications from heart failure.

“We were extremely saddened to hear of the passing of Nelsan Ellis,” HBO said in a statement given to Variety.

“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.”

His True Blood co-stars were quick to react on Twitter, recalling everything from Ellis’ kindness to his talent.

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.

After graduating from Thornridge High School in south suburban Dolton, Ill., he joined the Marines, but quit shortly after.

After graduating from Illinois State University, Ellis went on to get his B.F.A. from Juilliard, where he just so happened to be a class above his eventual True Blood costar, Rutina Wesley.

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 sought after 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.

In 2012, Ellis and five other Thornridge High School alumni returned to Chicago to found The Collective Theatre, an African-American theater company.

In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times about the project, Ellis said at the time: “We want to bring great theater to Chicago … everything from Shakespeare and Chekov to August Wilson and theater of the avant-garde. For us, our old stomping ground is Chicago. We were reared here, we went to school here, many of us discovered our love of acting and writing here in Chicago, so this is where we wanted to do this.”

The Collective’s first production, Katori Hall’s “HooDoo Love,” was directed by Ellis.


In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter Ellis’ family via — his manager Emily Gerson Saines — said they were prompted to share the details of the 39-year old’s death in hopes of helping others struggling with addiction. “Nelsan has suffered with drug and alcohol abuse for years. After many stints in rehab, Nelsan attempted to withdraw from alcohol on his own,” the statement said. “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.”

Ellis is survived by his grandmother, his father, and his son, Breon, as well as seven siblings.

Follow Colin Costello on Twitter @colincostello10.