Nelsan Ellis died at age 39 of heart failure (Photo via Flicker. CC: 2.0)

Flamboyant gay characters aren’t rare in popular TV these days, but Nelsan Ellis’ portrayal of Lafayette Reynolds on “True Blood” was groundbreaking in many ways. Lafayette wasn’t a gay stereotype, an easy victim or simple comic relief — though the character was, indeed, sassy as hell.

In fact, Ellis’ own contributions to the character led to a complete reversal of the planned script. Instead of being killed off as Lafayette was in the books, Ellis’ counterpart remained a central character until the final episode. Personally, I will never forget the famous “AIDS burger” scene in the first season, when Lafayette confronts three small-town bigots refusing to eat once they spot Lafayette as the cook.

A graduate of the seminal arts school, Julliard, Ellis spent decades performing memorable parts on TV, movies and on stage. Other appearances include “Elementary” and “Without a Trace” on CBS. He and high school friends also founded the Collective Theatre in Chicago, whose first show, HooDoo Love, Ellis directed in 2012.

One of Ellis’ “True Blood” co-stars and former Julliard classmate, Rutina Wesley, spoke to their alma mater about her career and acting with Ellis. He was hired for the show before Wesley, and she spoke of the relief of a familiar face.

“It’s comforting to know someone when you’re walking into a situation where you don’t know anyone,” Wesley told the Julliard Journal. “We have so much fun together. Especially with Nelsan because he was in a class ahead of me. All of our scenes together are on fire because we know each other. He always keeps me on my toes.”

Other co-stars and the show’s creator mourned the actor, who brought a special personality and skill set to the table. Anna Paquin, who plays the protagonist of “True Blood,” Sookie, tweeted her remembrance.

“It was an utter privilege to work with the phenomenally talented and deeply kind soul,” Paquin wrote. “I’m devastated by his untimely death.”

Numerous acquaintances and colleagues described Ellis’ nature as “kind” and “wonderful.” The show’s creator, Alan Ball, described his former star as “a singular talent whose creativity never ceased to amaze me.”