Friends, family and former costars said a final goodbye Saturday to actor Nelsan Ellis, the Harvey native and star of “True Blood” and “Elementary” who was laid to rest after a funeral in his hometown.
Viola Davis, Anna Paquin, Carrie Preston and Tika Sumpter were among about 500 people at Holy Temple Cathedral in Harvey for Ellis’ funeral, which his family opened to the public.
At the church, celebrities sat in one area, with Davis at the front, and family and friends took up the other three sections.
“He was like my baby,” Davis said during the ceremony. “When I saw that he was sick, I begged him to get better because I didn’t want to let him go. I still don’t want to let him go.”
Ellis died July 15 at 39 of what his family said were complications of withdrawal from alcohol addiction.
He graduated from Thornridge High School in Dolton, attended Illinois State University and studied acting at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School. He credited his teachers at Thornridge with helping to shape his life. Some were on hand Saturday for the two-hour service.
“He was a wonderful friend and a kind human being,” Chris Modowd, a classmate at Juilliard said afterward. “He was a poet in class. He wrote with this big imagery and giant pageantry. He had to be expressed.”
There were some lighter moments. Though Ellis was well known for his acting, that wasn’t always the case, said Pastor Tyrone Gaston of Holy Temple Cathedral. When he was younger, Ellis was assigned small roles in plays, Gaston said, because he was a “lousy actor.”
He persevered and became well known for playing Lafayette Reynold on HBO’s “True Blood” from 2008 through the show’s end in 2014. His other roles included a starring turn as Bobby Byrd in “Get on Up,” the 2014 movie biography of James Brown.
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Ellis had a difficult childhood, ending up in foster care after his parents’ divorce when he was in elementary school.
“When I was 8, things happened there, and the state came and took us away,” he said in an August 2014 Chicago Sun-Times interview. “My mother, unfortunately, she was arrested, and she was in jail, gone for two weeks. The neighbors called authorities, and they came and took us away. And unfortunately, shortly thereafter, my brother died, and my mother just didn’t recover for a long time. . . .
“I think that the only thing I ever knew how to do is act. But to be from abject poverty, it seems so distant, this thing that you have in you that you can’t begin to reach for.”
At the funeral, Ellis’ father Tommie Thompson teared up and could say only that he had a “wonderful” relationship with his son.
Nearly a year ago, Ellis was the best man at Artel Great’s wedding. He said they shared their dreams, anxieties and hopes for their future with each other.
“Nelsan was a person who was the personification of love,” Great said. “He changed all of our lives merely with his presence.”
He talked Saturday about how Ellis spoke with a slow drawl and with his hands — a comment that drew laughs from those attending the funeral.
Earlier, his family put out a written statement saying his death came after years of addiction: “Nelsan has suffered with drug and alcohol abuse for years. After many stints in rehab, Nelsan 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.”
At the funeral, Metra Gilliard, a friend for 25 years, said of Ellis: “He loved us more than he loved himself.”
Remembrances and condolences also were presented from people who couldn’t be there Saturday, including former President Barack Obama, who urged those present to reflect on his memory and contributions to the arts.
“Nelsan inspired those around him and a generation of Americans through his own story of overcoming adversity,” a letter from Obama said. “He will be remembered through his stellar performances and will live on through the beauty of the art he created.”
After the service, Ellis was buried at Cedar Park Cemetery next to his grandmother and grandfather.