Heath Ledger Found Dead

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Heath Ledger, an actor who combined a movie star's rugged good looks with the subtlety, depth, and range of an Oscar contender, was found dead in his Manhattan apartment Jan. 22. He was 28.

No cause of death was immediately reported, but NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said pills were found scattered around his bed in his home in the city's SoHo section. Browne told CNN, "This is being looked at as a possible drug overdose, but that is not confirmed yet." Police spokeswoman Barbara Chen told the network that the pills appeared to be over-the-counter sleep medication.

According to The Associated Press, Ledger had an appointment with a masseuse, and when his housekeeper went to tell the actor that the masseuse had arrived, she found him unconscious. Police declared him dead at about 3:30 p.m. EST.

Ledger appears in the recently released film I'm Not There, Todd Haynes' unusual biopic about Bob Dylan in which six actors portray different personas of the music icon. Ledger plays Robbie Clark, an actor, father, and husband struggling with the demands of fame and a disintegrating relationship, a rough approximation of Dylan's life in the 1970s, and perhaps Ledger's as well.

Like many good-looking actors who find fame early, Ledger was a target of the paparazzi. He and former girlfriend Michelle Williams, with whom he has a daughter, Matilda, moved to the relatively low-key neighborhood of Boerum Hill, Brooklyn -- more of a yuppie enclave than hipster hangout -- and found some solace but did not escape the tumult entirely. According to the Internet Movie Database, he and Williams broke up in September of last year, and Ledger moved to SoHo.

Heathcliff Andrew Ledger was born April 4, 1979, in Perth, Western Australia. His parents named him and his sister, Katherine, after the romantic heroes in Emily BrontĂŤ's Wuthering Heights. His first significant role came in the low-budget Australian film Blackrock, in which he played a boy whose best friend raped a girl.

He also worked in the Aussie TV series Sweat, about Olympic hopefuls. Given the choice of playing a swimmer or a cyclist who is gay, Ledger chose the latter because it would help him stand out. It was a choice that presaged the most significant role of his career.

Ledger first came to the attention of Americans in the movie 10 Things I Hate About You, a teen version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Though considered fluff, the film was well-received by critics, and Ledger and co-star Julia Stiles earned good notices. But not unlike Johnny Depp a generation before, Ledger distanced himself from the role of teenage heartthrob after his breakthrough success in the States.

His next major roles came in the Revolutionary War drama The Patriot, opposite Mel Gibson, and as the suicidal son of Billy Bob Thornton in Monster's Ball. Though the latter role afforded him little screen time, his performance stood out.

Ledger's career followed an uneven path the next few years until his performance in 2005 as Ennis Del Mar in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, the tale of two cowboys who fall in love. Ledger had reservations about accepting the role because there had been several aborted attempts to film the adaptation of Annie Proulx's short story.

However, he told an audience at a Back Stage Q&A session in the winter of 2006, "Once I finished reading the script, all those fears just disappeared because I realized they weren't my fears; they belonged to everyone else who had turned it down and given us the opportunity to do it instead. ... It was the most beautiful screenplay I'd ever read."

His performance in the movie, along with that of co-star Jake Gyllenhaal, won almost universal praise as well as nominations for many trophies, including an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a SAG Award. In The New York Times review of the film, Stephen Holden compared Ledger to Marlon Brando and Sean Penn.

But in interviews Ledger could come across as humble, almost diffident, about his acting. In December 2005 Jenelle Riley wrote in Back Stage: "Talk to him about his work...and he has trouble maintaining eye contact, his eyes darting to the floor as he repeatedly insists he doesn't think he's that good. 'I'm not as good as I want to be,' he says. 'I don't think I'll ever be as good as I want to be, but I'll keep striving for it.' "

Lauren Horwitch and Ronni Reich contributed to this report.

Andrew Salomon can be reached at asalomon@backstage.com.