Heath Ledger Found Dead

Police discover "Brokeback Mountain" star's body in NYC apartment; death may have been drug-related

By Joal Ryan Jan 23, 2008 12:26 AMTags

On a day like this two years ago, Heath Ledger was an Oscar nominee. On Tuesday, the 28-year-old leading man was found dead in a Manhattan apartment, possibly due to a drug overdose.

Ledger was discovered naked in bed, surrounded by prescription sleeping pills. A New York City police spokesperson said there was "no obvious sign of suicide."

Ledger's housekeeper made the find at about 3:30 p.m. ET, three and a half hours after the actor was last seen alive, police said.

Police confirmed another particular of the still-developing story: Namely, that the housekeeper had gone into the bedroom to alert Ledger that his masseuse had arrived for an afternoon appointment. The housekeeper and masseuse attempted CPR, but he was already dead.

"We are all deeply saddened and shocked by this accident," the actor's publicist, Mara Buxbaum, said in a statement. "This is an extremely difficult time for his loved ones and we are asking the media to please respect the family's privacy and avoid speculation until the facts are known."

A police source told E! News that while the department didn't know if Ledger owned the apartment he was found in, the apartment was his residence.

An autopsy is planned for Wednesday, according to the city's medical examiner.

"I had such great hope for him," Ledger's Patriot father Mel Gibson told E! News. "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."

Ledger's death came one week to the day that Brad Renfro, the child star of The Client, and acclaimed indie actor, was found dead in his Los Angeles home. Although the 25-year-old Renfro had a long history of drug troubles, the cause of death in his case remains unconfirmed. Ledger and Renfro's names, coincidentally, were linked in a 1999 New York Times article on young Hollywood. ("Young actors like Heath Ledger and Brad Renfro and Barry Watson [then of 7th Heaven fame]—actors whose names may hardly be recognized by adults," the paper noted in a discussion of the new generation's spiraling asking prices.)

Ledger's death also came within hours of this year's Oscar nominations press conference. While he wasn't considered a contender, he did costar in the Oscar-nominated Bob Dylan tale, I'm Not There. Ledger was one of a half-dozen actors, along with Best Supporting Actress candidate Cate Blanchett, to play a version of the legendary singer-songwriter.

Ledger, whose tutelage as a Hollywood star came working alongside the likes of Gibson and Billy Bob Thornton, was primed for a box-office breakthrough this coming summer as a star in upcoming Batman movie, The Dark Knight. In it, Ledger plays the unhinged Joker to Christian Bale's controlled Caped Crusader.

Shooting on The Dark Knight, the sequel to 2005's Batman Begins, is complete. The movie is due out July 18.

According to his credit page at the Internet Movie Database, Ledger last worked on the Terry Gilliam fantasy, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a planned 2009 release that is described as being in the filming stage. In 2000, another Gilliam movie, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, was shut down, and never completed, when, among other production troubles, the director's leading man, French actor Jean Rochefort, suffered debilitating back trouble.

In the course of a Hollywood career that looked to be a long one, but ended up lasting just about a decade, Ledger arguably will be best remembered as the emotionally tormented gay rancher opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in Ang Lee's groundbreaking drama, Brokeback Mountain. In January 2006, the role earned him what would be his first and last Oscar nomination. Ledger lost the Best Actor award that year to Capote's Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Brokeback producer James Schamus hailed Ledger as "a courageous actor, and a great soul."

"He gave us the gift of sharing his fearless and beautiful love—of his craft, and of all who worked with him—for which all of us will be eternally grateful," said Schamus, who is also the CEO of Focus Features.

Ledger's other key credits included: The Patriot, the 2000 Revolutionary War epic in which he played Gibson's son; 10 Things I Hate About You, the 1999 teen-skewed version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew that made stars of him and Julia Stiles; and Monster's Ball, the raw 2001 drama in which he played Thornton's jail-warden son, who in a shocking moment, kills himself.

With Brokeback costar Michelle Williams, Ledger was the father of a daughter, Matilda Rose, now 2. Ledger and Williams, who were together for about three years, ended their romantic relationship last year.

Before connecting with Williams, Ledger had a long relationship with fellow Aussie Naomi Watts. They paired up after meeting on the set of the Down Under outlaw flick Ned Kelly.

Born April 4, 1979, Ledger was a teen actor in his native country, working there in several movies and TV series, including the cult-favorite Roar, which ran on Fox during the summer of 1997.

In 10 Things..., Ledger distinguished himself from the Can't Hardly Wait pack with a fierce performance as Padua High's Kat tamer. His then-wild mane of hair didn't hurt, either.

By 2001, before his 22nd birthday, Ledger was the stand-alone star in the new-wave chivalry adventure, A Knight's Tale.

Though the Oscar nomination and The Dark Knight role meant Ledger would, and could, be a name-above-the-title star, Ledger frequently took roles in off-the-radar movies such as I'm Not There, 2005's Lords of Dogtown and 2006's Candy, an Australian movie about junkies.

"It was just grueling subject matter, and some of the most grueling scenes ever," Ledger said of the latter movie to the BBC Website.

In the same interview, Ledger admitted he wasn't much of a planner when it came to his career.

"As long as it scares me, as long as it's something new, as long as I get to scare other people...," Ledger said. "I don't know, as long as I get to evolve and grow as an actor and as a person, that's the stuff I'm after."

(Originally published Jan. 22, 2008 at 2:04 p.m. PT.)