Nelsan Ellis

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Nelsan Ellis
Ellis in 2009
Born(1977-11-30)November 30, 1977
DiedJuly 8, 2017(2017-07-08) (aged 39)
New York City, U.S.
Years active2002–2017

Nelsan Ellis (November 30, 1977 – July 8, 2017)[1] was an American actor. He achieved critical acclaim for his portrayal of Lafayette Reynolds in the HBO television series True Blood (2008–2014), for which he won a Satellite Award from the International Press Academy, among other accolades.[2] He also starred as Shinwell Johnson in Elementary from 2016 to 2017,[3] and played a variety of guest roles on television.[4]

In addition to his television work, Ellis appeared in several feature films throughout his career. He portrayed Eddie Sweat in the Disney sports drama Secretariat (2010), was Martin Luther King Jr. in Lee Daniels's The Butler (2013), and was Bobby Byrd in the 2014 James Brown biopic Get on Up. His final acting role was in True to the Game, which was released posthumously.[5]

Early life[edit]

Ellis was born in Harvey, Illinois,[6] near Chicago, the son of Jackie Ellis and Tommie Lee Thompson.[7][8] When Ellis and his siblings were young, their mother, a single parent after her divorce, broke down after the death of her brother. Ellis and his siblings became wards of the state, and later were raised in Bessemer, Alabama, by their maternal grandmother. He was diagnosed with dyslexia in second grade.[9]

In Alabama, Ellis attended Jess Lanier High School for a year and transferred to McAdory High School.[10] He moved back to Illinois at age 15, where he lived with his maternal aunt. In 1997 he graduated from Thornridge High School in Dolton, Illinois.[11]

He joined the United States Marine Corps at the age of 17, but quit not long afterward.[12] Following this, Ellis attended Illinois State University.[13]

In 2000, at the age of 22, he was accepted for enrollment at the Juilliard School,[12] where he befriended Rutina Wesley, later a colleague in the series True Blood.[14] Ellis earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Juilliard in 2004.[15]


Ellis began his acting career in the early 2000s, with a role in the short film Lost. In 2005, he starred in the television film Warm Springs. From 2005 to 2006, he played the recurring role of Carter Howard in the television series The Inside. He followed this up with guest roles in Veronica Mars and Without a Trace, both in 2007.

Ellis at the International Comic-Con San Diego with Ryan Kwanten, Deborah Ann Woll, Anna Paquin, Rutina Wesley, and Stephen Moyer to promote True Blood in 2011.

In mid-2007, Ellis was cast as Lafayette Reynolds in the pilot for True Blood, as a short-order cook at Merlotte's Bar & Grill, a drug dealer, a member of Jason Stackhouse's road crew, and Tara Thornton's cousin. The pilot was shot in the early summer of 2007 and was officially ordered to series in August.[16] Production on the series began later that fall.[17]

In casting Lafayette Reynolds, Alan Ball had concerns because the character's homosexuality would be a dominating trait. He said "you don't want to bring in someone who's going to play that in a phony way".[18] Nelsan Ellis said that it took him a few episodes to find the character.[19] Ellis has said that he based many of Lafayette's mannerisms on his mother and his sister, and that the costuming also helped him to get into character.[18] He told The Philadelphia Inquirer:

I have more makeup on than any of the females in the cast. Once they get me with the fake eyelashes and the eye makeup, I listen to some Rihanna and I'm there.

True Blood premiered on September 7, 2008, and concluded on August 24, 2014, comprising seven seasons and 80 episodes.[20][21] In 2008, Ellis received a Satellite Award from the International Press Academy for best supporting actor in a television series for his role as Lafayette Reynolds.[22] In 2009, he was nominated for a Scream Award for Best Supporting Actor.[23] In 2011, he won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for his performance in True Blood.[24]

Ellis also performed in several feature films; his early roles include The Express: The Ernie Davis Story (2008) and The Soloist (2009). In 2010, he portrayed Eddie Sweat in the Disney sports drama Secretariat.[25]

In 2012, Ellis was cast as Martin Luther King Jr. in a supporting performance in Lee Daniels' The Butler.[26][27] The Butler received mostly positive reviews from critics, with a 71% rating on the film critic aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, based on 171 reviews.[28]

The following year, Ellis joined the cast of Get on Up, a biographical drama film about the life of singer James Brown. He portrayed Bobby Byrd, Brown's longtime friend.[29] Get on Up was met with positive reviews from critics.[30]

From 2016 to 2017, Ellis starred as Shinwell Johnson in the TV series Elementary.[3] His character dies near the end of Season 5. The first episode to air after Ellis' death, the season 6 premiere, ended with the screen "In Memory of Our Friend Nelsan Ellis". His final acting role was in True to the Game, which was released posthumously.[5]


Ellis died at the age of 39 on July 8, 2017, in Woodhull Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York.[31][32][33] His family released a statement on July 10, 2017, saying that he had an ongoing struggle with drug and alcohol abuse. He had been reluctant to talk to anyone about his addiction because of his sense of shame. In the days prior to his death, Ellis was attempting to withdraw from alcohol on his own; he was hospitalized due to serious complications from alcohol withdrawal syndrome, which resulted in his death.[34][35][36] Ellis was survived by his son, Breon Ellis.[37]

Awards and nominations[edit]



Year Title Role Notes
2002 Lost Hoffa Short film
2005 Trespass Donny Short film
2008 The Express: The Ernie Davis Story Will Davis Jr.
2009 The Soloist David Carter
2009 Talent Titus
2010 Secretariat Eddie Sweat
2011 The Help Henry the Waiter
2012 The Reluctant Fundamentalist Wainwright
2013 Page 36 Writer and Director Short film
2013 The Butler Martin Luther King Jr.
2013 Gods Behaving Badly Dionysus
2014 Get On Up Bobby Byrd
2015 The Stanford Prison Experiment Jesse Fletcher
2016 Little Boxes Mack Burns
2017 True to the Game Tyrik Dedicated in his memory
2018 Roxanne Roxanne Mr. Lester Posthumous release


Year Title Role Notes
2005 Warm Springs Roy Collier Television film
2005–2006 The Inside Carter Howard 12 episodes
2007 Veronica Mars Apollo Bukenya Episode: "I Know What You'll Do Next Summer"
2007 Without a Trace Deng Nimieri Episode: "Lost Boy"
2008–2014 True Blood Lafayette Reynolds Regular; 80 episodes
Won Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actor – Series, Miniseries or Television Film
Won Satellite Award for Best Cast – Television Series
Nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series
Won Ewwy Award for best supporting actor in a Drama series
Won NewNowNext Award for Brink of Fame: Actor
Nominated for a Scream Award for best supporting actor
2015 RuPaul's Drag Race Himself, Guest Judge Episode: "Conjoined Queens"
2016–2017 Elementary Shinwell Johnson Main character; 11 episodes


  1. ^ "Nelsan Ellis". Yahoo! TV. Archived from the original on August 13, 2012. Retrieved March 14, 2012.
  2. ^ Hipes, Patrick (July 10, 2017). "Nelsan Ellis' Family Shares Circumstances Of 'True Blood' Actor's Death – Update". Deadline. Retrieved March 21, 2018.
  3. ^ a b "Why Elementary Went With That Shocking Death". CINEMABLEND. May 8, 2017. Retrieved March 21, 2018.
  4. ^ "'True Blood' Actor Nelsan Ellis Dies at 39". Retrieved March 21, 2018.
  5. ^ a b "Actor Nelsan Ellis' final role in upcoming film 'True to the Game' (trailer)". Rolling Out. July 9, 2017. Retrieved March 21, 2018.
  6. ^ Herrmann, Andrew (November 22, 2008). "'True Blood' actor Nelsan Ellis credits Thornridge teachers with on- and off-screen success". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on January 6, 2010. Retrieved July 9, 2009. Ellis, now 30
  7. ^ "True Blood actor Nelsan Ellis died due to alcohol-withdrawal complications", Hollywood Reporter
  8. ^ "Chicagoan Nelsan Ellis starred in True Blood; dies at 39", Chicago Sun-Times
  9. ^ Wallace, Jane. "Nelsan Ellis: Actor, Dyslexic". The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity. Retrieved March 29, 2016.
  10. ^ Sharp, Dave (August 9, 2009). "'True Blood's' Lafayette a glamorously shady character". The Birmingham News. Retrieved August 9, 2009.
  11. ^ Castro, Danilo (July 8, 2017). "Nelsan Ellis Cause of Death: How Did the 'True Blood' Actor Die?". Retrieved July 21, 2017.
  12. ^ a b Gopala, Nisha (July 7, 2011). "Nelsan Ellis on True Blood's Season of the Witches, Lafayette's Mohawk, and Dodging the Marines". Retrieved July 7, 2011.
  13. ^ "National Tournament Results – National Forensic Association".
  14. ^ "Alumni News". The Juilliard School. May 2008. Archived from the original on November 11, 2011. Retrieved April 6, 2012.
  15. ^ "Juilliard School Newsletter". September 6, 2011. Archived from the original on July 18, 2012. Retrieved April 6, 2012.
  16. ^ Schneider, Michael (August 9, 2007). "HBO rolls with Ball's 'True Blood'". Daily Variety. Retrieved March 20, 2008.
  17. ^ Mitovitch, Matt Webb (August 10, 2007). "True Blood Vampire Saga Tests Positive at HBO". TV Guide. Retrieved August 17, 2008.
  18. ^ a b Hiltbrand, David. "Actor brings extended life to 'True Blood' character". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Archived from the original on August 9, 2010. Retrieved August 20, 2010.
  19. ^ Rhett, Starrene (June 28, 2010). "Nelsan Ellis (Lafayette) Talks 'True Blood,' Gay Marriage, Tyler Perry". Vibe Magazine. Retrieved August 20, 2010.
  20. ^ "HBO Renews True Blood for Seventh Season". Daily Dead. July 15, 2013. Retrieved July 15, 2013.
  21. ^ The Screen Spy Team (September 3, 2013). "True Blood to End its Run in 2014". Screen Spy.
  22. ^ a b "2008 13th Annual SATELLITE Awards Nominees". International Press Academy. Archived from the original on December 18, 2008. Retrieved December 15, 2008.
  23. ^ a b "Scream 2009 Best Supporting Actor" Archived September 2, 2009, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on September 1, 2009.
  24. ^ a b "Nelsan Ellis". TV Fanatic. July 9, 2017. Retrieved July 21, 2017.
  25. ^ Patterson, John (November 27, 2010). "Secretariat is simply Seabiscuit reconfigured for the Tea Party set". the Guardian. Retrieved March 21, 2018.
  26. ^ Nordyke, Kimberly (May 7, 2013). "'The Butler' Trailer: Oprah Winfrey Plays 'Proud' Wife to Forest Whitaker (Video)". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved May 10, 2013.
  27. ^ Labrecque, Jeff (May 8, 2013). "'The Butler': The new trailer showcases Oscar-winning actors tackling history – VIDEO". PopWatch (column). Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved May 10, 2013.
  28. ^ "Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013)". Rotten Tomatoes. August 16, 2013. Retrieved August 16, 2013.
  29. ^ Gallagher, Brian (October 21, 2013). "Nelsan Ellis Joins the James Brown Biopic Get on Up". Archived from the original on December 24, 2013. Retrieved December 23, 2013.
  30. ^ "Get on Up (2014)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved July 31, 2014.
  31. ^ Parker, Ryan (July 8, 2017). "'True Blood' Star Nelsan Ellis Dies at 39". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved July 8, 2017.
  32. ^ "True Blood star Nelsan Ellis dies aged 39". BBC. July 8, 2017. Retrieved July 9, 2017.
  33. ^ Calfas, Jennifer (2017). "True Blood Star Nelsan Ellis Dies at 39". Time. Retrieved December 12, 2020.
  34. ^ Parker, Ryan (July 10, 2017). "Nelsan Ellis' Family Shares Circumstances of 'True Blood' Actor's Death". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved July 10, 2017.
  35. ^ Gonzalez, Sandra (July 10, 2017). "Nelsan Ellis struggled with addiction before death". CNN. Retrieved July 10, 2017.
  36. ^ Kelley, Seth (July 10, 2017). "Nelsan Ellis' Family Shares Details About 'True Blood' Star's Cause of Death". Variety. Retrieved July 21, 2017.
  37. ^ Parker, Ryan (July 10, 2017). "Nelsan Ellis' Family Shares Circumstances of 'True Blood' Actor's Death????". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved May 31, 2021.
  38. ^ Riley, Jenelle. "Interview: Sweat and Tears, Too". Backstage. Retrieved August 7, 2017.
  39. ^ "NewNowNext Awards: Who Won?". Retrieved on May 23, 2009.

External links[edit]