Updated 6 p.m. ET
Nelsan Ellis, the actor who brought to life the flamboyant character of Lafayette Reynolds on HBO’s True Blood, has died at the age of 39.
Ellis’ manager, Emily Gerson Saines, confirmed the death, telling The Hollywood Reporter that he died “after complications with heart failure. He was a great talent, and his words and presence will be forever missed.”
Saines also said Ellis’ body was damaged after years of drug and alcohol abuse. She said his father agreed to make it public that, after participating in several anti-addiction programs, Ellis 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. … Nelsan was a gentle, generous and kind soul. … Nelsan was ashamed of his addiction and thus was reluctant to talk about it during his life. His family, however, believes that in death he would want his life to serve as a cautionary tale in an attempt to help others.”
In a statement, HBO said, “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.”
Ellis did not have a lead role in the series. But his portrayal of the gay short-order cook who deals in blood was so popular among fans that even though the character was killed off in the book version of the vampire drama, he was kept on for all seven seasons of the show, Rolling Stone reports.
And yet the Juilliard-trained Ellis initially struggled to bring to life the character of Reynolds, according to Vibe magazine.
“The most intriguing thing about him is his strength and his stillness,” Ellis told the magazine in a 2010 interview. “He’s not quick on his toes unless he gets heated. He’s just in that Southern way — sort of sauntering along, being who he is.”
When asked whether he had heard feedback from the gay community, Ellis told the magazine, “Only in that they haven’t seen a dude like that before. And he’s not a stereotype.”
Production of True Blood ended in 2014, but tributes from Ellis’ castmates poured forth on social media over the weekend.
“(T)hat beautiful, gifted man was also the most humble artist I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing or working with,” True Blood co-star Anna Paquin posted on Instagram. “Nelsan inhabited characters that bore no resemblance to himself in a way that put him in that tiny category of true virtuoso performer.”
And Joe Manganiello posted to Twitter, “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.”
Most recently, Ellis had a recurring role in the CBS series Elementary, playing a former drug dealer.
He also appeared in numerous films, including Get On Up, The Help and Lee Daniels‘ The Butler.
Ellis spent part of his early years in a poor suburb of Birmingham, Ala., where his mother was shot, The Chicago Sun Times reports. As a teen, he moved to the outskirts of Chicago, where he discovered acting at Thornridge High School.
“I had no intention of being an actor,” Ellis told the newspaper in 2008. “It was my first experience being at a school where you had teenage black men who were serious about stuff, and you had these teachers who cared about the students and paid attention … My years at Thornridge probably changed the course of my life.”
The Hollywood Reporter says Ellis leaves behind a son.