The Julliard-trained actor, a native of Illinois, also played Martin Luther King Jr. in Lee Daniels’s 2013 movie “The Butler,” and appeared in the films “The Help” and “Get On Up.”
“We were extremely saddened to hear of the passing of Nelsan Ellis,” HBO said in a statement. “Nelsan was a longtime 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.”
In a 2010 interview with Vibe magazine, Ellis discussed his character’s appeal:
“There’s something about the dude that’s likable,” he said. “Even I was watching myself and criticizing myself — I go, ‘I like that dude.’ The most intriguing thing about him is his strength and his stillness. If you watch Lafayette, he doesn’t do very much. 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, which is something I never intended. It just happened.”
Online news site The Grio praised Ellis’s portrayal of Lafayette as one that “slays gay stereotypes.” “His flamboyance is darkly hued and coupled with a signature strength and masculinity that shows he is unashamed of who he is but fiercely defensive of the life he lives and the people he chooses to love,” wrote Michael McCray.
Octavia Spencer, who appeared alongside Ellis in “The Help,” offered her condolences on Instagram:
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Just got word that we lost @nelsanellisofficial. My heart breaks for his kids and family. #RIPNelsanEllis. #brillIantactor #trueblood #getonup #thesoloist #thehelp. The first time I met him was on the set of the soloist and we were at rehearsal with a lot of the homeless cast members, and Nelsan was playing our counselor. He walked in wearing a pair of fitted camo cargo pants, a pristine white tshirt, a beret, and a denim jacket. Needless to say he was gorgeous, sexy. But his talent had me speechless. We became instant friends after that. He was sooooo funny. I miss him. #nelsanellis
Other colleagues and fans also offered social-media tributes.