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Chicagoan Nelsan Ellis, who starred in ‘True Blood,’ dies at 39

Nelsan Ellis in 2014. | Supplied photo

Nelsan Ellis, the Harvey native known for his role as Lafayette Reynolds in the HBO series “True Blood,” has died at 39.

“Nelsan has passed away after complications with heart failure,” his manager Emily Gerson Saines told the Hollywood Reporter. “He was a great talent, and his words and presence will be forever missed.”

Mr. Ellis graduated from Thornridge High School in Dolton and attended Illinois State University and New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, where he studied acting. He often credited his teachers at Thornridge, particularly speech and drama teachers Tim Sweeney and Bill Kirksey, with helping to shape his adult life.

READ MORE: Nelsan Ellis death linked to alcohol withdrawal

His film roles included “The Soloist,” “Secretariat” and “Little Boxes.” He also portrayed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” and Bobby Byrd in the James Brown biopic “Get On Up.” His television credits also included the CBS series “Elementary.”

Four of the six founding members of The Collective Theatre pictured in September 2012 at The Den theater in Chicago: (left to right) Nelsan Ellis, Jasond Jones, Metra Gilliard and Veronda Carey. | Sun-Times files
Four of the six founding members of The Collective Theatre pictured in September 2012 at The Den theater in Chicago: (left to right) Nelsan Ellis, Jasond Jones, Metra Gilliard and Veronda Carey. | Sun-Times files

In 2012, Mr. Ellis and five other Thornridge alumni returned to Chicago to found The Collective Theatre, an African-American theater company. In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times about the project, Mr. Ellis said at the time: “We want to bring great theater to Chicago from a variety of sources and genres — everything from Shakespeare and Chekov to August Wilson and theater of the avant-garde. For us, our old stomping ground is Chicago. We were reared here, we went to school here, many of us discovered our love of acting and writing here in Chicago, so this is where we wanted to do this.” The Collective’s first production, Katori Hall’s “HooDoo Love,” was directed by Ellis.

Though Mr. Ellis was born in Chicago’s south suburbs, he moved to Atlanta with his mother when he was 6, after his parents divorced. In an interview with the Sun-Times in 2014, he described his early years and upbringing:

“When I was 8, things happened [in Atlanta], and the state came and took us away. But my grandmother, Alice Brown, walked through the system to get us back, took all these kids in. She’s still taking care of kids. She’s probably the most wonderful woman in all the world, responsible for the greatness of so many other people and you never even know she was there, an unsung hero. I came back to Illinois at 14 to live with my aunt in Dolton, eventually reuniting with my father. But even though we lived with various family members, we still remained wards of the state till 21. That comes with a lot of issues. You feel like, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why doesn’t anybody want you?’ And I have wonderful parents. I don’t love any other woman in the world more than my mother, and my father is the most fantastic man in the world. We just had a situation where somebody else had to take care of me and my brothers and sisters for a while.”

Of his most famous role, that of the flamboyant diner cook/medium Lafayette on “True Blood,” Mr. Ellis told the Sun-Times in 2012 he looked to his family for some of the characters’ mannerisms, especially his late mother, Jackie Ellis. “I channel my mama for Lafayette. My mama had a strong, beautiful way of walking that I can mimic well. It’s ingrained in me and my brother. We were raised by my grandma as well as my mama and my auntie. So Lafayette was born of all that.”

Asked in the 2014 Sun-Times interview about violence in Chicago, Mr. Ellis said:

“My advice is not for the youth, but for their parents: Y’all gotta do better. We as parents have got to do better. My boys are never going to do none of this stuff because I’m present. We have to cherish our children, make them feel loved, steer them in a different direction. … I’m 36, and my father still has influence over me. Talk to your child. Say, ‘You can do better. You’re smart. You’re brilliant. You’re wonderful. Stop.’ ”


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