Who Was Heath Ledger?
Heath Ledger's breakout role was in the film 10 Things I Hate About You with Julia Stiles. Ledger received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for his role in Brokeback Mountain. In 2008, after completing filming on Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, Ledger died as the result of an accidental prescription drug overdose. He received a posthumous Best Actor Academy Award for his performance as the Joker. Ledger had a daughter with actress Michelle Williams.
Ledger was born in Perth, Australia, on April 4, 1979, to mother Sally Ledger Bell, a French teacher, and father Kim Ledger, a racecar driver and mining specialist. He and his sister, Kate, were reportedly named after two main characters in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. He also had two half-sisters: Ashleigh Bell and Olivia Ledger, both of whom were born into his parents' second marriages. But Ledger's closest family relationship was with Kate, whom he later credited for spurring his acting career.
Early in life, Ledger found a passion for playing chess. At the age of 10, he won Western Australia's Junior Chess Championship. It was around this time that he found an interest in becoming a stage performer, as he performed the lead role in Guildford Grammar School's production of Peter Pan.
Unfortunately, while Ledger was enjoying this busy life of a 10-year-old, his parents found themselves growing apart. That year his parents would separate, before getting divorced when Heath was 11.
Early Acting Career
Ledger found emotional release in acting, choreography and dance and continued seeking out roles in his grammar school. He also tried his hand on the big screen as an extra in the movie Clowning Around, and later appeared in the TV series Ship To Shore.
At age 16, Ledger completed his early graduation exams, and he traveled cross-country to Sydney to pursue an acting career with his longtime friend Trevor DiCarlo.
After various small roles on television, Ledger's feature film debut came in 1997 in the emotional drama Blackrock. This led to a starring role in the historical fantasy series Roar, costarring Keri Russell and backed by financiers in the United States. The series was nominated for several awards and exposed Ledger to American audiences and Fox executives.
On the urging of then-girlfriend Liza Zane (who also appeared in the series,) Ledger sought out an American agent and followed Zane back to Los Angeles at the age of 19.
Making it in Hollywood: '10 Things' to 'A Knight's Tale'
In 1999, Ledger was fully exposed to an international audience with his breakout role opposite Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You. The film was a cult success among younger audiences.
Despite his young age and relative inexperience, he was soon beating out the Hollywood elite for major roles in blockbuster films. Mel Gibson cast him as his son Gabriel Martin in The Patriot (2000.) His talent was tested in the lower-budget Monster's Ball (2000) opposite Billy Bob Thornton. And the highly experimental A Knight's Tale (2001) displayed Ledger's abilities as a true leading man.
His exposure in these films, coupled with his growing reputation as a Hollywood playboy, led People magazine to name Ledger one of it's "50 Most Beautiful People" in 2001.
Ledger worked steadily on independent films until 2005 when he was once again thrust into the spotlight with his contribution to one of the most controversial films to date. Ledger received "Best Actor of 2005" awards from both the New York Film Critics Circle and the San Francisco Film Critics Circle for his performance in Brokeback Mountain.
In the film, Ledger plays ranch hand Ennis Del Mar, who has a lifelong love affair with aspiring rodeo rider Jack Twist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. He also received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Drama, and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his performance—making him, at age 26, the ninth-youngest nominee for a Best Actor Oscar.
Marriage to Michelle Williams
It was on the set of Brokeback Mountain that Ledger met actress Michelle Williams. The two began a whirlwind relationship, and their daughter, Matilda Rose, was born on October 28, 2005, in New York City. Matilda Rose's godparents are Ledger's Brokeback co-star Jake Gyllenhaal and Williams' Dawson's Creek (1998-03) castmate Busy Philipps.
Problems with paparazzi in Australia prompted Ledger to sell his residence in Bronte, New South Wales, and move to the United States, where he shared an apartment with Williams in Brooklyn, from 2005 to 2007. In September 2007, Williams' father, Larry Williams, confirmed to Sydney's Daily Telegraph that Ledger and Williams had ended their relationship.
On January 22, 2008, Ledger was found unconscious in his bed by his housekeeper, Teresa Solomon, and his masseuse, Diana Wolozin, at his apartment in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. According to police reports, Wolozin used Ledger's cell phone to call Ledger's friend, Mary-Kate Olsen, for help.
Emergency medical technicians arrived at Ledger's apartment at 3:33 p.m., but were unable to revive him. At 3:36 p.m., Ledger was pronounced dead and his body was removed from the apartment.
Soon after Ledger's death reached the news, erroneous reports began to surface, incorrectly claiming that the apartment he was in belonged to Olsen. It was later reported by People magazine that Diana Wolozin (who found Ledger unconscious) had called Olsen before calling authorities because Olsen and Ledger had been casually dating in the months before his death.
Ledger had told The New York Times in November 2007 that he was taking Ambien, a prescription medication used for the short-term treatment of insomnia. He discussed the difficulty that he was having with portraying the Joker in the upcoming Batman movie The Dark Knight, a character he described as a "psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy."
"Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night," Ledger told the Times. "I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted and my mind was still going." It is believed that the young star's death was caused by an overdose of the sleep aid, combined with various other prescription drugs found in his system post-mortem. The coroner's report ruled his death an accident.
Before his unfortunate passing, Ledger completed filming The Dark Knight. The blockbuster opened in U.S. theaters on July 18, 2008, and went on to gross more than $400 million in 18 days, thanks in large part to Ledger's terrifying performance as the Joker. The actor later was posthumously awarded a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the role.
At the time of his death, Ledger was filming Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Scenes that placed Ledger in a realistic world had been completed in London. After his passing, Ledger's role was recast to have new actors portray his "physically transformed versions" in a magical realm, including Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. The film premiered on Christmas Day 2009.
I Am Heath Ledger, a feature-length documentary celebrating his life using footage he had filmed himself, was released in theaters and aired in May 2017.
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