Nelsan Ellis, star of HBO's "True Blood," dead at 39

Last Updated Jul 8, 2017 7:14 PM EDT

Nelsan Ellis, best known for playing short-order cook Lafayette Reynolds on HBO's "True Blood," has died, the network announced Saturday. He was 39.

"We were extremely saddened to hear of the passing of Nelsan Ellis," HBO said in a statement.

"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. Nelsan will be dearly missed by his fans and all of us at HBO," the statement said.

The show's creator and executive producer, Alan Ball, also released a statement Saturday afternoon: "Nelsan was a singular talent whose creativity never ceased to amaze me. Working with him was a privilege."

Ellis' manager, Emily Gerson Saines, told CBS News that the actor passed away after complications with heart failure.

gettyimages-452757096.jpg

Nelsan Ellis attends HBO's "True Blood" panel during Comic-Con International 2014 at San Diego Convention Center on July 26, 2014 in San Diego, Calif.

Getty

Ellis was born in Illinois and was a graduate of The Juilliard School in New York City. His acting resume includes a portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. in Lee Daniels' "The Butler" and as singer Bobby Byrd in the James Brown biopic "Get On Up." Ellis recently played a starring role in the CBS detective series "Elementary."

The "Elementary" writers room extended prayers to Ellis' loved ones on Twitter.

"Nelsan Ellis will always be a treasured member of the Elementary family," they wrote. "Our hearts & prayers are w/his loved ones on this saddest of days."

Actress Octavia Spencer, his co-star on "The Help," remembered the actor on Instagram. "Just got word that we lost [Ellis]. My heart breaks for his kids and family," Spencer wrote.

Anna Paquin, who played Sookie Stackhouse in "True Blood," said on Twitter that Ellis was "phenomenally talented" and a "deeply kind soul."

Joe Manganiello said that he was "crushed" by the loss of his friend and former "True Blood" cast mate. "He was a wonderful person, a pioneer, and a one of a kind artist," he tweeted.

ap-17189772748979.jpg

In this June 21, 2011 file photo, Nelsan Ellis arrives at the premiere for the fourth season of HBO's "True Blood" in Los Angeles.

AP

In "True Blood," Ellis played Lafayette Reynolds, a fry cook, medium and vampire blood dealer. The show, which ran for seven seasons, is based on Charlaine Harris' "Southern Vampire" novels. The character was quickly killed off in the book series, but survived the HBO show thanks to Ellis' popularity in the role.

"I thought I was dead and gone," Ellis told The Chicago Tribune in 2014. "I wasn't even supposed to be a series regular. My contract was for seven out of 12 episodes, and then I was supposed to die."

Stephen Moyer, who played vampire Bill Compton, recalled filming the "True Blood" pilot with Ellis.

"I remember watching Nelsan improvise during the pilot with my mouth agape at how brilliant he was," Moyer told The Tribune. "I turned to Alan Ball and said, 'You can't kill him; he's a genius.'"