How did the actor die?
According to Saines’ statement, “Nelsan passed away after complications with heart failure.” Any prior history of heart trouble or health issues were not made public at the time of his death, but per Saines’ report, Nelsan’s father Tommie Lee Thompson released a more detailed account a few days later:
Nelsan’s father has bravely agreed for me to share the circumstances of Nelsan’s heart failure. Nelsan has suffered with drug and alcohol abuse for years. After many stints in rehab, Nelsan attempted to withdraw from alcohol on his own. 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 was born in Harvey, Illinois in 1978 and attended Thorn Ridge High School in Dolton. He later attended Oxford University and Columbia College in Chicago, before attending from the prestigious Juilliard School. After graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2004, Ellis appeared in numerous films, including The Soloist (2009), Secretariat (2010), The Help (2011) and The Butler (2013), where he played Martin Luther King, Jr. Most recently, he appeared in the independent film Little Boxes (2016).
But for many, he will be remembered as the scene-stealing Lafayette Reynolds on True Blood. The Hollywood Reporter claims that the character was actually killed off in the books, but Ellis proved such a hit with audiences that the producers decided to keep him alive for the duration of the show’s seven seasons.
For his groundbreaking work as Lafayette, a gay black man, Ellis explained to Vulture, “You have to be open. But more importantly, you make a statement when you do something like that. I did a documentary called Damn Wonderful, about gay suicide, and you make a statement, a big statement, when you go, “I don’t want to play this part because it’s gay.” If you have a child, if you have a son, and he comes out as gay, what are you going to do? If you have a daughter who comes out gay …? You just made a statement, and it has ripple effects.”
Between 2008 and 2014, Ellis earned the Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actor, the NowNextAward for Brink of Fame: Actor, and the Ewwy Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series.
In addition to Saines, numerous friends and collaborators of Ellis released statements to pay tribute to the late actor. “Nelson was a singular talent,” said True Blood creator Alan Ball, “Whose creativity never ceased to amaze me. Working with him was a privilege.”
HBO, who distributed the show, wrote: “We were extremely saddened to hear of the passing of Nelsan Ellis. 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.”
Others have taken to social media to pay their respects, citing the actor as a “Sweet, gentle soul” and “An amazing talent.” Check out some of the most notable reactions below, including those from True Blood alum Anna Paquin and Joe Manganiello.
Ellis is survived by his father and his siblings Lakeeia, Tommie Lee Jr., Babon, Maurice, Tianna, Yvonne, and Shaentika. The actor also has one child, Breon Ellis.
In lieu of flowers, the family has asked for all donations be made to the Jenesse Center or The Restoration Ministries Church of God and Christ. To learn more about Ellis’ life and career, click below.