Remembering Heath Ledger


Remembering Heath Ledger

Jan 22, 2008, 07:15 PM | by Gary Susman

Categories: Film

Like you, the folks here at EW HQ thought it was a cruel hoax when reports started surfacing this afternoon that Heath Ledger was dead at 28, the second promising young star in less than a week to die. The exact cause and circumstances surrounding his death are still unknown, but we can only hope that the performer will be remembered mainly for his all-too-brief but triumphant acting career.

Most fans will remember Ledger for his Oscar-nominated turn in Brokeback Mountain (pictured), as well they should. His role marks one of the great, astonishing acting transformations of our time. I loved Ledger's early, lighter work — his goofy romantic lead in the teen-Shakespeare farce 10 Things I Hate About You, his sly, tongue-in-cheek turn as a medieval sports hero in A Knight's Tale — and I even enjoyed his dramatic posturing as the callow rebel of The Patriot and the resentful son of Monster's Ball. But I'd never have guessed that he had that Brokeback performance in him. From his slow gait to his swallowed baritone speech, his lonesome cowpoke Ennis seemed like a brand new person, yet one the actor fully inhabited. Indeed, it's now impossible to imagine that any of his contemporaries could have done a better job, so indelible is Ledger's performance. And who didn't cry at the end when he said, "Jack, I swear..."?

After Brokeback, Ledger's characters began to take a darker turn. There was the drug-addiction drama Candy, which I fear I'll never be able to watch again without cringing, and his forthcoming turn as a bedraggled, scary-looking Joker in this summer's Batman Begins sequel The Dark Knight. I'm sure no one will be able to watch that one either without seeing unintended ironies and eerie portents of doom. It's always facile to read an actor's off-screen life into his choice of roles (if you saw Ledger's depiction of Bob Dylan's crumbling marriage in the recent I'm Not There, you could be forgiven for being reminded of the recent dissolution of Ledger's off-screen union with Michelle Williams), but still, for now, I prefer to remember the jokey, cheerful, cheeseball Ledger of Knight's Tale and 10 Things, movies enhanced by the sense they conveyed that Ledger was thoroughly enjoying himself. It'll be a while before I can watch Brokeback again without getting misty-eyed for the wrong reason.


Actor Heath Ledger dies at 28

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Ledger's family calls his death "very tragic, untimely and accidental"
  • An autopsy will be conducted Wednesday
  • No note was found and there was no indication of foul play, police say
  • The Academy Award-nominated actor was the father of a young daughter

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Actor Heath Ledger was found dead Tuesday of a possible drug overdose in a Lower Manhattan apartment, the New York Police Department said.

The Academy Award-nominated actor was 28.

Ledger was found naked and unresponsive, facedown on the floor at the foot of his bed by a housekeeper trying to wake him for an appointment with a masseuse, said police spokesman Paul Browne.

"Pills were found in the vicinity of the bed," he told CNN.

"This is being looked at as a possible overdose, but that is not confirmed yet."

Browne later told reporters some prescription medications were found in the room, including sleeping pills.

But he stressed police have made no determination of the cause of Ledger's death -- that would be done by the medical examiner.

He said the pills were not "scattered about."

No note was found and there was no indication of foul play, Browne said. Ledger was found at about 3 p.m., and was pronounced dead at the scene by emergency personnel about 3:30 p.m. VideoWatch a report about Ledger's death »

A crowd of onlookers, photographers and reporters gathered outside the apartment building after news of Ledger's death was reported. Police officers were guarding the doors.

Browne said he did not know how long Ledger had been renting the apartment, which he said took up the entire fourth floor.

An autopsy would be conducted on Wednesday, said Ellen Borakove, spokeswoman for the New York City medical examiner's office. VideoWatch Ledger's body being removed »

Ledger's family called his death "very tragic, untimely and accidental."

"Heath has touched so many people on so many different levels during his short life, but few had the pleasure of truly knowing him," his father said.

"He was a down-to-earth, generous, kindhearted, life-loving, unselfish individual extremely inspirational to many."

Hollywood reacts

Condolences began pouring in from Ledger's friends and co-stars.

"I had such great hope for him," said Mel Gibson, who played Ledger's father in "The Patriot," in a statement.

"He was just taking off and to lose his life at such a young age is a tragic loss. My thoughts and prayers are with him and his family."

Actress Nicole Kidman, a fellow Australian and close friend of Ledger's, said in a statement, "What a tragedy. My heart goes out to his family." VideoWatch the reaction at the Sundance Film Festival »

At the time of his death, Ledger had just finished playing the villain The Joker in "The Dark Knight," the latest installment in the Batman series. The film is to open in July.

Ledger was born in Perth, Australia, and named Heathcliff Andrew after the main characters of Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights." He began acting at a local theater as a child. Find out more about the actor »

Ledger's first American film was the teen comedy "10 Things I Hate About You" in 1999, and he immediately attracted attention from Hollywood. He passed up several scripts before taking a role in the Revolutionary War drama "The Patriot" in 2000 and "A Knight's Tale" in 2001. He also played a supporting role in "Monster's Ball," among other films. PhotoSee a photo gallery of Ledger's life and career »

"In a way I was spoon-fed a career," he told the Glasgow Herald in 2005. "It was fully manufactured by a studio that believed it could put me on their posters and turn me into a product. ... I hadn't figured out properly how to act, and all of a sudden I was being thrown into these lead roles."

Controversial role

But Ledger was perhaps best known for his 2005 portrayal of Ennis Del Mar in "Brokeback Mountain," about two cowboys who had a secret romantic relationship. The role earned him an Oscar nomination.

"I felt that choices were being made for me, so I feel this has been my time now to find the good stories and test myself," Ledger told the Glasgow Herald in the 2005 interview. "It has been an interesting year, where I finally have a sense of accomplishment."

Asked how he felt about filming love scenes with another man, Ledger said he and his co-star Jake Gyllenhaal simply focused on their roles.

"We can't say that we weren't nervous about it," Ledger told Oprah Winfrey in 2006. "But once the first take was over, it's like, 'OK. So what? It's kissing another human being. How are we going to finish this scene? Let's get on with it and let's get out of here.' "

In a written statement, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation said it mourns Ledger's death, adding that his portrayal of Del Mar "changed hearts and minds in immeasurable ways."

Ledger has a daughter, Matilda Rose, born in 2005 to his then-girlfriend, Michelle Williams, who played his on-screen wife, Alma, in "Brokeback Mountain." The couple have since separated.

"He was just so respected in the industry," said Kim Serafin, senior editor of In Touch Weekly.

"It's just horribly tragic. He was just a fine actor and a good person, so this is horribly sad and very unexpected."


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