On Saturday, news broke that actor Nelsan Ellis passed away at age 39, reportedly due to heart failure complications. His manager confirmed the news to The Hollywood Reporter. While he tackled a range of roles, Ellis may be best known for playing Lafayette, the slyly funny fry cook and medium in HBO's hit series True Blood. His character became an inspiration for fans, thanks to the actor's layered performance and Lafayette's openness about his sexuality, even when it made the residents of the small southern town of Bon Temps uncomfortable. Actually, especially then.
Lafayette was one-of-a-kind, and he changed the TV landscape as a gay, black man, who was multidimensional and given love stories that were as richly drawn as his straight counterparts'. When he landed onscreen in the 2008 pilot, the character was an instant scene-stealer. Known for wearing makeup, head scarves, and earrings, Lafayette never made any attempt to hide who he was from the world — something that felt revolutionary for plenty of viewers, who couldn't get enough of the character's trademark quips and heart.
For the residents of Bon Temps, Lafayette was a truth-teller. Whether the patrons of Merlotte's asked for advice or not, he was there to serve it up, and he wasn't the kind of man to pull his punches. Everything about Lafayette seemed to be incongruous with how black, gay men were presented on TV at the time (when they were presented at all) — he was at once flamboyant and able to kick as much butt as the other characters, as well as loving, but also capable of being as coldly selfish as anyone else on the show. Maybe it shouldn't have been revolutionary for Lafayette to be so amazingly complicated, but it was.
Perhaps, what truly made Lafayette such an inspiration was his resilience. In a show were characters were routinely killed off, turned into vampires, or worse, Lafayette persisted. He lost his boyfriend and his cousin, he was beaten for selling vampire blood, and was "gifted" with the ability to talk to the dead. Through it all, he survived, because that's who he was: He was the person who continued to find a reason to live in a brutal world. And his ability to continue to find love and hope and humor in life, no matter how bleak things became, touched so many viewers' lives.
Ellis seemed to recognize Lafayette's resiliency as his character's greatest strength as well. Once, in an interview with HBO, the actor was asked why trouble always seemed to find his character, and he replied, "Because he knows what to do with it ... Lafayette is a survivor. Trouble comes, and then he surmounts it and moves on."
True Blood was one of TV's most unpredictable shows, but fans knew that no matter what craziness was happening with Sookie, Eric, and Bill, Lafayette would be there to infuse some sense into the situation. Sookie may have been the show's lead, but Lafayette was its witty, beating heart.
Ellis was taken from the world far too soon, but there is some comfort in knowing that Lafayette will live on as one of TV's true icons.