Actor Nelsan Ellis, best known for playing flamboyantly gay short-order cook/drug dealer/spirit medium Lafayette Reynolds on seven seasons of HBO’s True Blood, has died. According to Variety, Reynolds, who was 39, died of complications from heart failure.
Born in Chicago, and Julliard-trained, Ellis first broke into TV with a role on Fox’s short-lived crime drama The Inside, playing the tech guy for the show’s Rachel Nichols-led team of crimesolvers. After the series folded, Ellis made a turn into film, giving supporting roles in the Ernie Davis biopic The Express and the Jamie Foxx/Robert Downey Jr. vehicle The Soloist, before scoring a key role in Alan Ball’s campy vampire soap in 2008.
As Lafayette, Ellis presented one of the few True Blood characters who seemed fully clued-in to just how ridiculous Charlaine Harris’ world of repentant vampires, angry Maenads, and rampaging werepanthers actually was, serving as a calm (if extralegal) presence for the frequently fucked-up residents of Bon Temps. Although Ellis said he struggled for several episodes to find the character, once he did, he could be explosively powerful in the role, as in this scene, one of the most famous from the show’s first season:
After True Blood, Ellis continued to work steadily, co-starring on the most recent season of Elementary, and appearing in films like Little Boxes and the James Brown biopic Get On Up. In 2013, Ellis gave one of his most notable roles, in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, playing Martin Luther King Jr. in a short but resonant scene:
Ellis was memorialized online today by his co-star from The Help, Octavia Spencer, and by his old True Blood castmates and showrunner, among other former co-workers and fans of his work.