“True Blood” Star Nelsan Ellis Dies at 39, But He Was Always More Than the HBO Show

Nelsan Ellis RIPGetty Images

In the world of the devoted television fan, there are shows you love, shows you hate, and shows you love to hate. With the latter, you often times find yourself wondering why you keep tuning in week after week and year after year, long after the storylines have spun out of control and all your favorite characters are dead. But then, that singular shining ray of sunshine appears on your screen, the clouds part and suddenly you think: Ah, yes. That’s why.

For me, True Blood was my favorite Sunday night hate watch. Sookie was unbearable, her magic faerie blood and love quadrangles the stuff of late night groans and marathon eye rolling sessions with my friends. Bill kept turning up years after I’d grown tried of his melodrama and brooding, inexplicably still in the running for Sook-eh’s heart despite his terrible controlling ways and a number of more suitable, interesting options. Don’t even get me started on his transformation into Billith.

But amongst the questionable romantic entanglements and the bizarre plot turns, there were bright spots, and none shined brighter than Lafayette Reynolds, the cross-dressing short-order cook who specialized in dealing V and dropping truth bombs. Even at the show’s most ridiculous, I could always count on Lafayette to turn up and expertly dish out not only words of wisdom, but also some much-needed reality checks to the rest of the Bon Temps gang.

And thank God, because I’m not sure I could have carried on without Lafayette to speak my thoughts aloud, to roll his eyes for me, to make me cry when everyone else’s melodrama only made me snort.

It’s no secret that this is due more to ’ ability as an actor than any great love for a character that dies at the end of the first book. He breathed life and nuance into what was arguably little more than a gay stereotype at the beginning. His ability to improvise, something co-star Stephen Moyer confessed only Nelsan was permitted to do, added not only laughs but also depth to the show and quickly turned Lafayette into a fan favorite. He became, quite frankly, irreplaceable.

So when I found out on Saturday that Ellis had died, I was understandably saddened. It’s always a tragedy to lose someone so young, and while I hadn’t been an ardent follower of his career, I had only just recently enjoyed his performance on Elementary. It seemed unthinkable that he should be gone, especially to something as vague as “complications due to heart failure.”

But this morning, his family released a statement revealing that his death was a result of alcohol addiction and his personal desire to give it up. It reminded me that the people we admire aren’t immune to the tribulations that life offers.

Ellis was more than fake lashes and sassing fictional characters. He had a life, a family, and friends who loved him. He grew up in Alabama, where his grandmother raised him after his mother’s breakdown. He went to Julliard where he first faced the struggle of being a black actor in a white industry. In a 2009 interview with Backstage, he’s quoted saying, “the studies were so intense and the institution is so white, and I’m a black man from the South with a very specific vernacular and palate. I felt like an alien, and I struggled the first couple of years.” He appeared in award-winning films like The Help and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and all the while he struggled quietly with addiction.

As it turned out, all the depth and complexities I saw in Lafayette were reflections of the man playing him. Ellis’ death is heartbreaking, but I hope his struggle will prove as inspiring to other addicts as his portrayal of Lafayette was to the queer community.

  | Staff Writer
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Still quiet here.sas

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