/ 23 January 2008

Ledger decided ‘to forge his own way’

Actor Heath Ledger was found dead at a Manhattan apartment, naked in bed with sleeping pills nearby, police said. He was 28. Police said there was no obvious indication of suicide.

The Australian-born Ledger had an appointment for a massage at a residence in the upscale SoHo neighbourhood, New York police department spokesperson Paul Browne said. A housekeeper who went to tell him the massage therapist had arrived found him dead on the afternoon of January 22.

Ledger, who moved to the United States at age 19, quickly turned away from typical teen films and instead started to build a career on more challenging roles.

That led to an Oscar nomination in 2006 for his performance as a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain, where he met Michelle Williams, who played his wife in the film. The two had a daughter, Matilda, and lived together until they split up last year.

Ledger most recently appeared in I’m Not There, in which he played one of the many incarnations of singer Bob Dylan — as did Cate Blanchett, whose performance in that film earned her an Oscar nomination this week for best supporting actress.

Ledger had finished filming his role as the Joker this year in The Dark Knight, a sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins.

He told the New York Times in a November interview that he “stressed out a little too much” during the Dylan film, and had trouble sleeping while portraying the Joker, whom he called 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.” He said he took two Ambien pills, which only worked for an hour, the paper said.

Ledger also had starring roles in A Knight’s Tale and The Patriot, and played the suicidal son of Billy Bob Thornton in Monster’s Ball. He also played a heroin addict in the 2006 Australian film Candy.

Before settling down with Williams, Ledger had relationships with actresses Heather Graham and Naomi Watts. He met Watts while working on The Lords of Dogtown, a fictionalised version of a cult-classic skateboarding documentary, in 2004.

Ledger was born in 1979 in Perth, in Western Australia, to a mining engineer and a French teacher, and got his first acting role playing Peter Pan at age 10 at a local theatre company. He began acting in independent films as a 16-year-old in Sydney and played a cyclist hoping to land a spot on an Olympic team in a 1996 television show called Seat.

After several independent films, Ledger moved to Los Angeles at age 19 and co-starred in 10 Things I Hate about You, a teen comedy reworking of The Taming of the Shrew.

Offers for other teen films soon came his way, but Ledger turned them down, preferring to remain idle than sign on for projects he did not like.

“It wasn’t a hard decision for me,” Ledger said in 2001. “It was hard for everyone else around me to understand. Agents were like, ‘You’re crazy,’ my parents were like, ‘Come on, you have to eat.'”

His movie career caught on anyway.

Australian director Neil Armfield said he was “incredibly saddened” by Ledger’s death.

Armfield, who directed Ledger in his last Australian film, told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio that the actor had “handled his career incredibly well”.

“He made a decision about four years ago to stop being led by producers and managers and to forge his own way,” Armfield said. “He was so successful at breaking out of the teen-idol image.”

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said he was greatly saddened by Ledger’s death. “It is tragic that we have lost one of our nation’s finest actors in the prime of his life,” he said in a statement. “Heath Ledger’s diverse and challenging roles will be remembered as some of the great performances by an Australian actor.”

Armfield said Ledger had an uncomfortable relationship with the media, and was easily provoked. “He was vulnerable and felt intensely invaded and got so unbelievably distressed. The photographers would try to push him into a reaction and he was a young man so he would react,” he said.

The West Australian newspaper in Perth reported that Ledger left an extended message on the phone of the paper’s film editor thanking the people of Perth for leaving him alone during a recent vacation there.

“It’s truly been an incredibly therapeutic and a much-needed trip home, and just that little touch has made it all that more special to me. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and certainly a happy New Year, if I don’t speak to you before I leave. I will no doubt be talking to you probably next year when the Batman [film] comes out,” Ledger was quoted as saying. — Sapa-AP

Associated Press Sara Kugler contributed to this report