NEW YORK (AP) — More details have emerged in the death of actor Nelsan Ellis, best known for his memorable portrayal of Lafayette Reynolds on HBO’s “True Blood” who died at the age of 39.
TMZ.com is reporting that Ellis’ family says that the actor’s struggles with drug and alcohol abuse were contributing factors to his death.
The actor’s family said Nelsan, who died Saturday, struggled with drug and alcohol abuse for years and his latest attempt to stop on his own led to his death, reports TMZ.
“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,” the family said.
Nelsan, they continued, “was ashamed of his addiction and thus was reluctant to talk about it during his life. His family, however, believes that in death he would want his life to serve as a cautionary tale in an attempt to help others.”
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 also was 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.
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.
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 with his “True Blood” co-star Rutina Wesley.