Nelsan Ellis, best known for his portrayal of the flamboyant short-order cook Lafayette on HBO’s True Blood, has died at age 39.
Ellis’ manager, Emily Gerson Saines, confirmed the news to The Hollywood Reporter, stating that the actor "passed away after complications with heart failure.”
Ellis had an impressive resume, with key roles in films like The Help, Secretariat, the James Brown biopic Get on Up, The Soloist, and The Butler. Most recently, he could be seen on CBS’ Elementary, including season five, which just wrapped.
The role Ellis will probably always be remembered for, however, is most certainly Lafayette Reynolds, a character that stood out in True Blood’s very large cast of colorful characters. HBO released statement calling Ellis a “long-time member of the HBO family” and noting that his portrayal of the Merlotte’s cook “will be remembered fondly within the overall legacy of True Blood.”
True Blood alums react Nelsan Ellis' Death
Fellow True Blood alums quickly took to social media to express their shock and grief over Ellis’ sudden death, praising his talent and kindness above all.
Anna Paquin, whose performance on the series as Sookie Stackhouse earned her a Golden Globe win in 2009, shared, “It was an utter privilege to work with the phenomenally talented and deeply kind soul.”
Sam Trammell, best known for playing Sam Merlotte, Lafayette’s boss, tweeted, “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the level of humility and kindness that came with the magnificent talent that Nelsan Ellis had.”
I don't know if I've ever seen the level of humility and kindness that came with the Magnificent Talent that Nelsan Ellis had. Miss u friend— Sam Trammell (@SamTrammell) July 8, 2017
It’s worth noting that the character Lafayette was meant to be killed off after one season, as he was in the Charlaine Harris book series that inspired the show. Ellis’ portrayal, which was incredibly human, nuanced, provocative, and often hilarious, single-handedly spared the character’s life.
Stephen Moyer, who played vampire Bill Compton, recalls this development in a lengthy Instagram post, eulogizing his late co-star. Moyer remembers one specific scene that seemed to seal the character’s fate, in which Lafayette “was expounding on his theory of men’s fear of female anatomy.” Moyer says that a crowd of people gathered around a monitor to watch the scene unfold, with “hands clapped to their mouths in shock” and “sheer laughter.” It was immediately after that Moyer turned to Alan Ball, the creator of the series that would air successfully for seven seasons, and whispered “You can’t kill him!”
One of the first places we shot on the pilot of True Blood was Sam Merlotte’s Bar. The kitchen Suzuki Ingerslev built in Merlotte’s had a walk in freezer & working gas burners. It remained my favourite set throughout all 7 seasons - when shooting in Louisiana many months later she took us to the actual bar she had used as inspiration. It was almost as amazing as our Merlotte’s, but not quite - They didn’t have a Lafayette. In the scene that was being shot that day, Lafayette, a male cross-dressing short order cook in the show, was expounding on his theory of men’s fear of the female anatomy.. specifically, the vagina. ‘I know every man whether straight, gay or George MotherFuckin’ Bush is afraid of the pussy..’ I’m not sure I have ever seen, before or since, people crowd around a monitor at video village with their hands clapped to their mouths from shock, sheer laughter and wonder as the actor playing Lafayette jiggled and shook and humped the butchers block to get his point across. it was completely original, funny, sardonic, risqué and brilliant. That was Nelsan Ellis. All of the above. I turned to Alan Ball when the scene was finished and whispered… ‘you can’t kill him!’ (Lafayette’s death at the of the first book is the cliffhanger that leads to Book 2… ) Nelsan Ellis was the only actor in the 7 years of True Blood whom Alan allowed to improvise. Actually, I’m going to take that back. It wasn’t that Alan allowed him to do it, it was more that when Nelsan inhabited the world of Lafayette, he quite literally COULDN’T STOP himself. It was like he was possessed. In actuality Nelsan was quiet, smart, thoughtful, warm and kind. A published playwright himself. I think it would be fair to say that he taught all of us that intent and courage and fearlessness and freedom are the aspects of playing make-believe that spark the corners of the room where the dark is most impenetrable; to shine a light on those corners within ourselves is the very reason we go back time and again to Movies, TV shows and Theatre. To see that spark ignited. Nelsan had that electricity in an abundance I have rarely seen. I can’t believe he’s gone. #nelsanellis
Ball gave his own statement, referring to Ellis as a “singular talent whose creativity never ceased to amaze me.”
If there was one truly iconic scene that summed Lafayette up like no other, it would be this one here. Yes, it’s the one everyone’s sharing, but that’s because it really is the best. Ellis’ performance as Lafayette broke down barriers with sass, humor, and strength, and that is displayed perfectly right here.
Nelsan Ellis' iconic Lafayette scene
"Tip your waitress."