Heath Ledger profile
Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight"
Heath Ledger

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A chill ran through the world of show business on January 22, 2008, when word spread that Australian-born actor Heath Ledger had been found dead in his Manhattan apartment at age 28. Press reports ranged from speculation about the cause of death — which appeared to be related to a possible overdose of sleeping pills and, perhaps, to issues of past drug abuse — to statements mourning the sudden loss issued by such friends and colleagues as Nicole Kidman and Mel Gibson, as well as director Ang Lee and Kevin Rudd, Australia’s Prime Minister.

Sympathy and concern were also directed to actress Michelle Williams, Heath’s ex-fiancée and the mother of his two-year-old daughter, Matilda Rose. Other press reports focused on how the actor was well liked by acquaintances and neighbors, who commented on his unaffected and polite manner. Meanwhile, reporters discussed Heath’s well reported past social life, as well as a quote in which he seemed partially reconciled to the thought of dying. Reports also surface via MTV of a music video, with purported suicidal imagery, that the young actor had directed: “Black Eyed Dog,” a song about depression by early 70s cult singer-songwriter Nick Drake, who himself died at age 26 of an overdose of anti-depressants. 

Others speculated on the effect the actor’s death might have on two upcoming films: “The Dark Knight,” in which Heath, expanding his acting persona, had completed film and post-production work as the homicidally insane Joker opposite Christian Bale’s Batman; and the partially filmed latest project from acclaimed, but recently trouble-prone, director Terry Gilliam, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.” Regardless, the real news was that the film world had lost a charismatic, hard working and well-liked young actor.

Born in 1979 in Perth, Australia to a French teacher and an engineer/race car driver, Heath Ledger took his graduation exams early and, rumor has it, moved to Sydney with dreams of a life as an actor and sixty-nine Australian cents in his pocket.  His first significant role was as a gay cyclist in “Sweat,” a 1996 television drama. Almost immediately, the young actor broke into the American market with the lead role in “Roar,” a short-lived fantasy adventure series.

In 1999, Ledger was cast opposite Julia Stiles in “10 Things I Hate About You,” a teen update of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew.” Heath’s good looks and actual acting skill served him well, and the film was a sizeable hit. He also had a chance to show his ability opposite Aussie superstar Bryan Brown in “Two Hands,” a crime comedy-drama. The film was a hit in Australia, but never made it past the festival circuit in the United States.

Though he was particular about choosing his roles — and by his own account was for a time living on ramen as a result — Heath was hitting the mainstream fast. His next big part was as Mel Gibson’s surviving son in “The Patriot,” followed by the much lighter role of a peasant-turned-knight in the anachronistic action comedy, “A Knight’s Tale.” His acting reputation was clinched, however, by a brief but powerful performance as Billy Bob Thorton’s son in the Oscar-winning “Monster’s Ball.”

Other films were less successful. A new version of the frequently filmed, pro-Imperialist classic, “Four Feathers” failed, and so did “Ned Kelly,”  “The Order,” and Terry Gilliam’s “The Brothers Grimm.” The string of disappointments was broken somewhat by a widely praised comic turn as an elder skater in 2005’s “Lords of Dogtown.”

It would take another kind of role entirely to make Heath Ledger into a household name. Heath took what many thought was a risky step by playing the repressed gay ranch hand, Ennis Del Mar, in the Oscar-winning “Brokeback Mountain.” It was the  first high-profile, mainstream film to focus on a gay male love story in years, and included just enough same-sex kissing and mildly explicit sex scenes between Heath and costar Jake Gyllenhaal to make right-leaning pundits and numerous straight males unusually nervous. Many swore they’d never see it — but they kept on talking, comedians kept on joking, and Heath got his first Oscar nomination.

The film got even more attention when it turned out that Heath was dating attractive costar Michelle Williams. (Heath’s past girlfriends had included Lisa Zane, Heather Graham, and Naomi Watts.) The pair was engaged for a time and had a child together, Matilda Rose, but by September of 2007 they had informed the press that they had parted amicably.

As for his public life, Heath jumped back into the deep end of onscreen heterosexuality with “Casanova” — a few critics swooned, but most audiences were not wooed. Before his tragic death in 2008, however, Heath’s selectivity in choosing his parts seemed to be paying off. He won praise as one of several top actors to play variations of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’ mostly acclaimed and very unusual biopic, “I’m Not There.” And he also made big news with his casting as the maniacal Joker, arguably the mother of all offbeat roles, in Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to the mega-hit, “Batman Begins.”

As for his final work, as of this writing it’s impossible to know whether his partially completed performance in Terry Gilliam’s ““The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” will ever see the light of day, or whether the MTV music videos he was directing will be shown. What remains certain is that, like so many talented actors who died young — including James Dean, River Phoenix and too many others — Heath Ledger’s sincere body of work will be watched and enjoyed for a very long time.

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Heath Ledger on the Web

An online database of Heath’s career.

More about Heathcliff Andrew Ledger.

“An Actor Whose Work Will Outlast the Frenzy”
An admiring posthumous look at Heath Ledger’s acting career by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott.

Heath Ledger on the Screen

Young, artistically ambitious, actors tend to lean towards the melodramatic and the showy in their performances. What we liked about Heath is that, even when playing an unusually tortured character, he appeared to be trying to conceal his pain the way —  as most real people do under stress. And, when it was time to have fun, Heath was also reliably likable in lighter fare like “A Knight’s Tale.” While his performance as Ennis Del Mar is, as New York Times critic A.O. Scott put it, destined to be seen as his “defining performance,” our personal favorite is his brief but hugely compelling work in “Monster’s Ball.” It’s a kind of tragic mini-masterpiece. And, of course, we’re really looking forward to seeing what might well be his final finished performance as The Joker in “The Dark Knight.” It looks like one role that’s sure to stay etched in everyone’s memory.

Heath Says

On playing the Joker:
“….Definitely the most fun I’ve had with any character. He's a sociopath, psychotic, mass murdering clown, and I'm just thoroughly, thoroughly enjoying it.”

On “Brokeback” hubbub:
“It's a story of two human beings that are in love; get over the fact that it's two men — that's the point.”

On the zen of being Heath Ledger:
“I don't plan at all. I don't know what I'm doing tomorrow. I don't have a day planner and I don't have a diary. I completely live in the now, not in the past, not in the future.”

On parenthood, and death:
“You also look at death differently. It's like a catch-22. I feel good about dying now because I feel like I'm alive in her.  But at the same time, you don't want to die because you want to be around for the rest of her life."

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