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'True Blood' Star Nelsan Ellis Dies At 39

Jul 10, 2017
Originally published on July 10, 2017 4:35 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The HBO show "True Blood" had a lot of memorable characters - Sookie, Eric, the sheriff, Andy. And then there was Lafayette Reynolds. Lafayette was played by Nelsan Ellis, who died over the weekend. He was 39. His family said in a statement he died from complications following alcohol withdrawal. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Lafayette Reynolds was never supposed to be a huge character. In fact he dies pretty early on in the books. But "True Blood" creator Alan Ball told NPR in 2012 that the second he saw Nelsan Ellis in the pilot, he knew he had to keep the character around.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ALAN BALL: Because he's such a special force. And usually I'm not a big fan of actors who improvise because a lot of them are not very good at it. But he just started channeling Lafayette. And I just sort of felt instinctively, like, OK, let's just stand back. Just point the camera. Just let him go.

LIMBONG: Probably Nelsan Ellis' most memorable scene as the gay short-order cook was early in the run of "True Blood."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRUE BLOOD")

NELSAN ELLIS: (As Lafayette Reynolds) Excuse me. Who ordered the hamburger with AIDS?

(LAUGHTER)

LIMBONG: That's Ellis as Lafayette confronting a table that was trying to pick on him for being gay. It doesn't go super well for the guys.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRUE BLOOD")

CALEB MOODY: (As Royce) I'm an American, and I got a say in who makes my food.

ELLIS: (As Lafayette Reynolds) Oh, baby, it's too late for that. [Expletive] Bringing your cows, raising your chickens, even brewing your beer long before I walked my sexy ass up in this [expletive].

LIMBONG: Alexander Woo was the writer on "True Blood" who wrote the episode.

ALEXANDER WOO: In the hands and the mouth of Nelsan, he made that piece of dialogue sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRUE BLOOD")

ELLIS: (As Lafayette Reynolds) Bitch, you come in my house, you're going to eat my food the way I [expletive] make it. Do you understand me? Tip your waitress.

LIMBONG: Woo says there were about a hundred people, cast and crew, on set that day, industry folks who see this sort of thing all the time. But that scene was different.

WOO: When the director called cut, everyone stopped and burst into applause. And (laughter) I never experienced that before.

LIMBONG: Nelsan Ellis was born in Illinois in 1977. Alexander Woo says that in real life he was quiet, shy, humble. Sometimes that was reflected in his characters. His take on Martin Luther King Jr. in Lee Daniels' "The Butler" was more measured.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BUTLER")

ELLIS: (As Martin Luther King Jr.) Young brother, the black domestic defy racial stereotypes by being hardworking and trustworthy.

LIMBONG: Same goes for his role in the 2016 indie movie "Little Boxes" as Mack Burns, the dad in an interracial family.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LITTLE BOXES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) And now he destroyed my property. I think that's a good reason to call the police.

ELLIS: (As Mack Burns) Are you crazy? Is something wrong with you? He's an 11-year-old child. You want to call the police on him? For what?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) OK.

ELLIS: (As Mack Burns) Are you trying to ruin my son's life?

LIMBONG: But it will be for Lafayette Reynolds, a character so different from Nelsan Ellis' quiet demeanor, that he'll be remembered. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.