Ellis was born in Chicago but raised in Alabama. He eventually was accepted for enrollment at the Juilliard School’s Drama Division when he was 21, where he met and befriended future True Blood co-start Rutina Wesley, who would end up playing his cousin Tara. Ellis earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Juilliard in 2004.Just a few short years later in 2007, Ellis got his big break and was cast as Lafayette Reynolds in the pilot for True Blood. Lafayette was a short order cook at local restaurant and bar Merlotte’s, a member of the local Bon Temps road crew, and the character of Tara Thornton’s first cousin. He was also an out gay man in small town, and a drug dealer and occasional prostitute. The pilot was shot in the early summer of 2007 and was officially ordered to series in August. True Blood was an instant hit when it premiered in 2008, and for the first several seasons there was something of True Blood mania across pop culture. In the books by author Charlaine Harris on which True Blood was based, the character of Lafayette dies at the end of the first novel in the series. But Lafayette was so popular with the fans that series showrunner Alan Ball knew they couldn’t kill him off in the same way. He quickly became one of the signature characters on the show. As an LGBT fan myself, I can tell you that Nelsan Ellis’ portrayal of Lafayette Reynolds was absolutely one of my favorite LGBT characters ever to appear on television. After Ellen DeGeneres’ historic coming out twenty years ago, we started to to see more and more gay characters on TV, but although many of them were well written, they were also kind of neutered in a way. None of them were allowed to have much sexuality, and were almost too pure. It probably came from a good place on the part of the writers, but it ended up making for several dull storylines for gay characters, and almost all of them had to have a requisite “coming out” arc. Lafayette was another story. There was no traditional “coming out” saga for him like most gay television characters from the same era. He was very much out and proud from the moment he stepped on screen. He was a flamboyant gay man who wore makeup and turbans when he felt like it, and was all “bro-ed out” when he felt like looking like that. And he did this while living in a small Southern town that was anything but open minded. But make no mistake–no one messed with Lafayette. Or if they did, they ended up regretting it, like the roughnecks who refused his cooking in an early episode of the series. (you can see the clip below). I had the privilege of seeing Nelsan on stage for the True Blood panel at San Diego Comic-Con three years in a row, at the height of the show’s popularity. Believe me, NO ONE get a bigger cheer when entering the room than Ellis did. Lafayette was seemingly everyone’s favorite character, and heaven knows when most viewers were sick of the “who is Sookie going to choose?” story lines on the show, Lafayette was the reason we kept coming back to True Blood. But Nelsan Ellis himself couldn’t have been more different than the character he played. Ellis was a very laid back, very soft spoken man, who seemed a bit overwhelmed by all the fan adulation. He grew up and remained a devout Christian, but was firmly committed to LGBT causes as well, despite being a heterosexual man in real life, proving that in this divided world, these two things do not have to be incompatible. In this sense, Ellis should be an inspiration to all. True Blood showrunner Alan Ball said in a statement (via THR). “Nelsan was a singular talent whose creativity never ceased to amaze me. Working with him was a privilege.”
Ellis’ True Blood co-stars also quickly took to social media to express their sadness of the loss of their friend and colleague.
— Anna Paquin (@AnnaPaquin) July 8, 2017
Heart is shattered hearing of tragic news of #NelsanEllis passing. Devastated.He possessed such humility & fearless talent. U r deeply loved
— Michelle Forbes (@MishkaForbes) July 8, 2017
Crushed today by the loss of my friend and castmate Nelsan Ellis. He was a wonderful person, a pioneer, and a one of a kind artist. RIP pic.twitter.com/fvtquhIac7
— Joe Manganiello (@JoeManganiello) July 8, 2017
— Deborah Ann Woll (@DeborahAnnWoll) July 8, 2017
One of the sweetest most talented men I’ve ever met. A terrible loss for all of us. Rest In… https://t.co/PgiUMuVzaZ
— Kristin Bauer (@BauervanStraten) July 8, 2017
Ellis is survived by his grandmother (Alex Brown), his father (Tommie Lee Thompson) and his son (Breon Ellis). He is also survived by his siblings – Lakeeia Thomson (sister), Tommie Lee Thompson (brother), Babon Ellis (brother), Maurice Turne (brother), Tianna Thompson (sister), Shaentika Beard (sister), Yvonne Ellis (sister) and Tartheaia Thompson (aunt).
Nelsan Ellis was truly remarkable. A brilliant, charismatic, intelligent, soulful, wonderful dude. this is just completely tragic.
— Stephen Moyer (@smoyer) July 8, 2017
Do you have a favorite Nelsan Ellis performance, either in or outside of True Blood? Be sure to leave us your thoughts down below in the comments.