Born in Memphis, TN, Ellis was raised in Frayser, a working class suburb in northern Memphis where his mother made ends meet by renting out rooms to boarders. He began acting in community theater as early as 1970, during which he also took seven years to complete his college education. Ellis later relocated to New York City, where he performed in approximately two dozen plays. His screen debut came at the end of the 1970s in the TV-movie "The Suicide's Wife" (CBS, 1979), but it was followed by a period of lengthy inactivity, during which Ellis reportedly existed in dire poverty in New York's Hell's Kitchen. He resurfaced in 1990 with a colorful turn as a NASCAR pit crew member in the Tom Cruise vehicle "Days of Thunder." The success of the film led to regular work as a bit and supporting player in major features like "My Cousin Vinny" (1992), "Addams Family Values" (1993) and "Crimson Tide" (1995). Ellis finally earned his breakout role as Mercury Seven astronaut Deke Slayton in Ron Howard's "Apollo 13," a performance that led to several subsequent collaborations with the film's star, Tom Hanks, including roles in "That Thing You Do!" (1996), the HBO miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon" (1998), and as Hanks' FBI supervisor in "Catch Me If You Can." By the late 90s, Ellis had settled into steady work as authority figures in numerous features and television series, including "Con Air" (1997), Barry Levinson's "Wag the Dog" (1997), "Godzilla" (1998) and "Armageddon" (1998). He remained amazingly prolific into the new millennium, enjoying small but notable roles in "Transformers" (2007) and "Live Free or Die Hard" (2007), though television soon became his primary showcase, most notably on "NCIS," "The West Wing" (NBC, 1999-2006) and "Burn Notice." From 2010 to 2013, Ellis logged in numerous guest appearances - up to five per year in 2011 alone - before returning to features with a small role as a priest in "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012).