Variety is reporting that actor Ron Lester, whose credits include the WB’s Popular and a breakout role in the 1999 football drama Varsity Blues, has died. Lester was 45.
Known for his large frame and enthusiastic, good-hearted characters, Lester got his first major acting role in 1997’s Good Burger. Two years later, he was cast in Varsity Blues as Billy Bob, the hard-partying heart of the football team coached by Jon Voight’s victory-obsessed villain. The role exposed Lester to a national audience, and for a time, he became the go-to actor for casting directors looking to cast large, funny young men. (He played bully Siedleman on Freaks & Geeks, and reprised his Billy Bob role for the parodic Not Another Teen Movie.)
1999 also saw Lester cast in The WB’s cult sitcom Popular, a.k.a. the show that introduced Glee and American Horror Story mastermind Ryan Murphy to the world. Lester played Sugar Daddy, a wanna-be gangster who runs with the popular crowd at Jacqueline Kennedy High School. Usually relegated to comic relief, the character tapped into Lester’s talent for dispensing enthusiastically bad advice.
After Popular ended, Lester’s acting opportunities slowed down. A lifetime of struggling with obesity and a family history of heart disease led him to undergo gastric bypass surgery in 2001, a decision that had drastic effects on both his body and his career. Losing nearly 350 pounds, Lester became disconnected from the roles that had made him a nationally recognizable icon. A 2014 Grantland profile on the actor, written while he was struggling to find funding for a faith-based movie about NASCAR, paints the post-surgery Lester as a hard-working but deeply unhappy man. “Am I alive?” he remarks at one point. “Yes. Am I happy? No. Did I throw away my career to be skinny? Yes. I wouldn’t do [the surgery] again. I would much rather have died happy, rich, and kept my status and gone out on top.”
According to Variety, Lester was hospitalized four months ago from complications relating to kidney and liver damage. He died Friday night.