Born in Harvey, Illinois, in 1978, actor Nelsan Ellis trained at the Juilliard School in New York City. He spent several years as a stage actor before achieving breakout success on television in 2008, when he landed the memorable role of Lafayette Reynolds on the hit HBO vampire series True Blood. He later appeared in a number of big-screen projects, including The Butler, Get on Up, The Stanford Prison Experiment, and in 2016 he returned to TV in FOX's Sherlock Holmes series Elementary. Ellis died of complications of heart failure on July 8, 2017, at the age of 39.
Born in 1978 in Harvey, Illinois, Nelsan Ellis moved to Bessemer, Alabama, when he was 6 years old, following the divorce of his parents. Ellis and his siblings—"about eight, give or take," the actor has said—were raised in poverty and became wards of the state, moving constantly from relative to relative while also dealing with the day-to-day difficulties of being black in the deep South: "It was hell," Ellis later said of the experience in a Time Out magazine interview. "You go back to my town, it's like going back to the 1960s . . .just not a great place to grow up."
Luckily for Ellis, his mother, aunts and grandmother were still there to support him through his difficult childhood: "They were strong women. They told me if I wanted to do something, to be something, I had to make it happen."
Early Theatrical Career and Tragedy
At the age of 14, Ellis moved back to Illinois to attend high school, living with his aunt in a neighborhood near his father's house. At Thornridge High, Ellis became a top speech competitor after helping a friend with her tryouts, and grabbing the attention of coaches with his oratory skills and energy. He went on to win the Duo Interpretation Championship on a national level.
During his high school years, Ellis was also persuaded by his teachers to take the role of Junie in the George C. Wolfe play The Colored Museum. Though he had become hooked on acting by the time he graduated, Ellis joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 17 and spent some time in the military. However, his love of acting proved too strong to ignore and he eventually enrolled in the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City to study drama. During this time, Ellis experienced a horrific family tragedy when his pregnant sister was shot and murdered by her husband.
Ellis channeled personal tragedy into art. While at Juilliard, he penned his first stage play, Ugly, a story of "unconditional love and how it masks a multitude of sins," according to the actor. Based on the death of his sister, Ugly sheds light on the overlooked problem of domestic violence. For the dark and provocative work, Ellis won Lincoln Center's Martin E. Segal Award. He would spend the next seven years immersed in the world of stage and drama as an actor before making his TV screen debut in 2005.
Lafayette on 'True Blood'
Following appearances in a number of television projects that included The Inside and Veronica Mars, Ellis achieved breakout success in 2008 when he took the part of Lafayette on the hit HBO vampire series True Blood. The show's large ensemble cast featured Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer, Rutina Wesley and Sam Trammell, among many others. While Lafayette is a small, relatively unimportant and one-dimensional figure in Charlaine Harris's book series of the same name, True Blood director Alan Ball worked with Ellis to bring complexity and intrigue to the TV version of the character.
Alternately flamboyant and hyper-masculine, the televised Lafayette is a gay black man from the South who breaks nearly every stereotype thrown upon him. ''I didn't like him in the books, but I loved the Lafayette I saw in the pilot," Ellis later stated. "He lives in a place where he deals with extreme scrutiny and adversity from everybody. He has to be tough and shrewd."
Straight in real life and a self-described "boring person," Ellis nevertheless powerful and complex portrayal of Lafayette won him immense popularity among straight and gay fans alike. The actor appeared in the series for its full seven-season run until its finale 2014.
'The Help,' 'Get on Up,' 'The Butler'
Two years after his True Blood debut, Ellis starred opposite Diane Lane and John Malkovich in the 2010 film Secretariat. More big-screen work has followed, including The Help (2011), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012) and The Butler (2013), in which Ellis portrayed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Additional roles have included playing Greek mythological deity Dionysus in Gods Behaving Badly (2013) and singer Bobby Byrd in the James Brown biopic Get on Up (2014). Ellis also appeared in the drama The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015).
In 2016, Ellis returned to television, appearing as Shinwell Johnson, a former criminal turned informant, in the FOX series Elementary.
Ellis died of complications of heart failure on July 8, 2017, at the age of 39. His manager Emily Gerson confirmed his death to the Hollywood Reporter, saying: “He was a great talent, and his words and presence will be forever missed.
Friends and costars expressed their sadness about his untimely passing and celebrated Ellis' talent on social media.
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