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Heath Ledger, 1979-2008

A Star's Bright, Brief Life

The Australian-born actor of considerable charm and dramatic dexterity, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his role in 2005's "Brokeback Mountain," was found dead Jan. 22 in New York.

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By Adam Bernstein and David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Heath Ledger, 28, an Australian-born actor of considerable charm and dramatic dexterity who earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for playing a sexually conflicted cowboy in "Brokeback Mountain," was found dead yesterday in New York.

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Police spokesman Paul J. Browne said Ledger was discovered by the housekeeper and a visiting masseuse at a Lower Manhattan apartment where the actor lived. Police said prescription sleeping pills were found near the body but added they had not drawn a conclusion about the cause of death, pending further tests by the medical examiner.

At nightfall, as the site of Ledger's death gradually became known, the sidewalks nearby were jammed with television crews, paparazzi and reporters. As journalists and a few fans watched, the body was removed from the building by police and placed in a medical examiner's van. Later in the evening, admirers of Ledger began to place flowers at the scene.

A brooding blond with a deep voice, Ledger initially excelled as a teen heartthrob in movies such as "A Knight's Tale" (2001) and "10 Things I Hate About You" (1999).

He also had a supporting role as Mel Gibson's rebellious son in "The Patriot" (2000), set during the Revolutionary War, and returned to costume drama as a 19th-century British soldier who tries to undo a tarnish of cowardice in "The Four Feathers" (2002).

Ledger expressed boredom with such fanciful parts and sought more nuanced roles -- as the suicidal son of a racist prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) in "Monster's Ball" (2001) and as one of the half-dozen actors playing versions of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes's "I'm Not There" (2007). He played Dylan as a philandering hipster in a cast that included Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale and Richard Gere.

But it was director Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" (2005) that cemented Ledger's reputation after years in the front rank of promising young stars.

He played Ennis Del Mar, a lonely and laconic ranch hand whose affair with a rodeo rider (Jake Gyllenhaal) in 1963 sparks a lifelong passion.

Critic Kenneth Turan wrote in the Los Angeles Times that "Ledger brings this film alive by going so deeply into his character you wonder if he'll be able to come back," and said the film "could not have succeeded without it."

Heath Andrew Ledger was born April 4, 1979, in the western Australian city of Perth. He was named after Heathcliff, the brooding hero of Emily Bronte's novel "Wuthering Heights," his mother's favorite book.

He started acting at 10, as a donkey in a Christmas play, while attending an all-boys school. An older sister talked him into joining an amateur theater group in Perth, for which he landed the starring role of "Peter Pan."

He said of the part, which required him to don pea-green tights: "It took a lot of guts. For a 12-year-old kid, that can be damaging amongst your peers."

At school and in the club, he gradually won parts that took advantage of his romantic appeal and athleticism (he was a field hockey standout).

Ledger left high school at 16 and traveled cross-country to win spots in two prominent Sydney acting companies, one of them specializing in Shakespeare.

He was cast in Australian films and short-lived television sitcoms. He also won the lead as a Celtic warrior in the TV series "Roar" (1997), an adventure show set in medieval times. It was a part that brought him to Hollywood's attention.

As best as possible, he tried to reject the industry's efforts to make him a hunky teen idol. He expressed concern about being typecast in heroic parts and returned to Australia to make the small-budget dark comedy "Two Hands" (1999), as a young man who stumbles into organized crime.

He spoke with resentment about how Columbia Pictures, which made "The Patriot," tried to lure him into the title role of its big-budget adventure film "Spider-Man" (2002). The part went to Tobey Maguire.

"I was their investment," Ledger said of Columbia. "They saw me and they invested money in me in 'The Patriot' and said, 'Okay, let's pop him out in that, let's get another product, and let's bring in the bucks.' "

He had earlier blown off his audition for "The Patriot," walking out with the quip: "Good luck with your movie. I'm wasting your time and my time. I'm gonna go home now." He returned, he said, "to prove to them that I was having a bad day and actually do something good."

Director Gregor Jordan, who had earlier directed Ledger in "Two Hands," cast him as the eponymous 19th-century Australian outlaw in "Ned Kelly" (2003). His decision to return to Australia and accept a $50,000 paycheck for "Ned Kelly" -- a $2.5 million cut from his Hollywood salary -- was viewed as an example of his dedication to craft over ego.

Ledger's desire for a nontraditional career also led to his appearance in several films released in 2005: Terry Gilliam's "The Brothers Grimm," in which he and Matt Damon played 18th-century German con men; "Lords of Dogtown," as California skateboarding impresario Skip Engblom, founder of the Z-Boys team; and Lasse Hallstrom's comedy "Casanova," as a fictionalized version of the Venetian bed-hopper.

At his death, Ledger had recently completed playing the villainous Joker in director Christopher Nolan's Batman movie "The Dark Knight."

Ledger told the New York Times he interpreted the Joker as a "psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy," far different from Jack Nicholson's earlier performance as the same character.

Ledger was self-taught and often castigated himself in interviews about his perceived shortcomings as a performer. "I feel the same way about everything I do," he said last year. "The day I say 'It's good' is the day I should start doing something else."

Ledger had a daughter, Matilda, with actress Michelle Williams, who played his wife in "Brokeback Mountain." The couple separated last year.

An autopsy is to be conducted today.

The Broome Street apartment building where Ledger died is in a pricey part of SoHo, next to a high-end furniture store and a Nanette Lepore clothing boutique. As the media crowd assembled outside it yesterday afternoon, residents in nearby apartments watched. The police kept an eye on everyone and shouted now and again to keep the sidewalk passable.

"Nobody is going to come out of the building until this area is cleared!" said one officer.

There weren't a lot of fans to be found in the first few hours after Ledger's death, and those who showed up seemed more awed by the spectacle of the crowd than moved by the passing of a movie star.

"Great actor," said a New York University student named Jessica Roy, who lives nearby. She'd seen Ledger in the neighborhood a few times, on his bicycle, she said, and remembered thinking, "He looked like any scruffy New Yorker."

At one point a delivery man showed up with a pizza, which he said was ordered by someone in the building. When it became clear that nobody without a badge would get near the place, he handed out the slices to the press.

By 8 p.m. most of the media scrum had dispersed and a handful of fans had arrived. They included Jennifer Rosner, a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology who was in a movie theater this afternoon, watching "Sweeney Todd," when she noticed her cellphone was vibrating like crazy. It was her mother, and a handful of friends, calling to let her know the tragic news about her favorite actor.

"I fell in love with him when I saw him 'Knight's Tale,' " Rosner said, holding a photo of Ledger that she'd torn out of a magazine. "I thought he was gorgeous, of course, and a great actor and I've been obsessed with him since I was about 14 years old. There were people who called me today who I haven't spoken to in years, because they know how much I've loved Heath Ledger.

"I always dreamed of meeting him and I always wanted to know where he lived," she went on, welling up. "And now I know."

An 18-year-old named Lesleigh Valette came with a friend bearing carnations, which she placed on the sidewalk near the door of 431 Broome. "I was a huge fan -- I thought he was an amazing actor," she said. "I saw him on the street once and told him that I loved him in 'Brokeback Mountain,' and he said thank you and he asked me my name. He just seemed like a sweet guy and a real guy, a private person. He didn't seem like a typical celebrity, which is why this is shocking."

"He gave you something when you watched him in a movie," said George Duncan, a portrait photographer listening to Valette. "I mean, you felt indebted to him because he really made himself vulnerable, which is very unusual, especially for a male actor."

David Segal reported from New York.


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