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Actor Nelsan Ellis, best known for his memorable portrayal of Lafayette Reynolds on HBO's True Blood, died at the age of 39. Ellis' manager, Emily Gerson Saines, confirmed the actor's death in an email Saturday. The Hollywood Reporter, which was first to report Ellis' death, quoted her as saying the actor died from complications of heart failure.
The Illinois-born actor, who studied at Juilliard, played the role of Lafayette, a gay short-order cook, on the HBO drama from 2008 to 2014, and more recently appeared in the CBS detective series Elementary. He was also a playwright and a stage director.
Ellis appeared as Martin Luther King, Jr. in Lee Daniels' The Butler, and as singer Bobby Byrd in the James Brown biopic Get On Up. He also appeared in The Help, and his castmate Octavia Spencer mourned his death on Instagram. "My heart breaks for his kids and family," the actress wrote.
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His True Blood co-stars also tweeted remembrances of Ellis:
It was an utter privilege to work with the phenomenally talented and deeply kind soul .@OfficialNelsan I'm devastated by his untimely death. pic.twitter.com/If17csduHzJuly 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/fvtquhIac7July 8, 2017
Nelsan Ellis was truly remarkable. A brilliant, charismatic, intelligent, soulful, wonderful dude. this is just completely tragic.July 8, 2017
On Twitter, some fans posted one of his more famous scenes as Lafayette, where the character marches out of the kitchen to confront some bigoted diners.
Rest In Peace Nelsan Ellis and thank you for giving us this iconic scene.#tipyowaitresshttps://t.co/XCuuNChaUMJuly 8, 2017
HBO released a statement saying the network was "extremely saddened" by Ellis' death.
"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," the statement read. "Nelsan will be dearly missed by his fans and all of us at HBO."
True Blood creator Alan Ball called Ellis "a singular talent whose creativity never ceased to amaze me. Working with him was a privilege."
In a 2012 TV interview in Chicago, Ellis recalled that it took four auditions for him to nail the role of Lafayette. At first, he said, he was playing the role as a caricature, and was told to "go back to the drawing board and figure it out."
He then began to channel his mother. "Once I started to act like my Mama, my fourth audition, I got the part," he said.
Born in Harvey, Illinois, Ellis attended Thornridge High School, where he credited teachers with instilling the craft of theater in him. He later attended Juilliard in New York City.
Jocelyn Noveck is a national writer for the Associated Press.
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