“Heath Ledger was a courageous actor, and a great soul,” James Schamus, CEO of Focus Features and producer of Brokeback Mountain, said of the star, who was found dead on Jan. 22, 2008, in New York City, at age 28. A year to the day later, Hollywood echoed that sentiment, honoring the actor with his second Oscar nomination (and ultimate win), this time for The Dark Knight.
The Oscar nod came just after a Golden Globe win for his role as the psychotic joker in The Dark Knight, the sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins. “It’s the most fun I’ve had with a character and probably will ever have,” Ledger said. For his mother, Sally Bell, the posthumous honor left her “bursting with pride,” as she called it “such a fantastic and wonderful legacy for his daughter [Matilda].”
Ledger’s rise on the screen started as a teen: At 16, he left his hometown of Perth, Australia, and headed to Sydney, where he appeared on the Aussie TV show Sweat and made his feature film debut in Blackrock. He then took the lead in the Fox series Roar (pictured), a warrior drama that filmed in Queensland and costarred Keri Russell.
Ledger landed his first Hollywood lead in 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You, opposite Julia Stiles. The teen comedy raked in more than $50 million, but Ledger admitted he was unhappy being labeled a heartthrob. “I was a young kid from Australia, and that was the only movie someone was willing to put me in, so what do you do?” he told the Houston Chronicle.
By the time he starred in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain (pictured, with Jake Gyllenhaal), Ledger had already worked opposite Billy Bob Thornton (Monster’s Ball) and Mel Gibson (The Patriot). In his Oscar-nominated role of Ennis Del Mar, director Ang Lee gushed to PEOPLE that Ledger’s performance was reminiscent of “a young [Marlon] Brando.”
“I would have been crazy to turn it down,” Ledger (with his Brokeback costars Anne Hathaway and Gyllenhaal) told Entertainment Weekly of breaking barriers in the gay cowboy drama. “Any anxiety toward doing it was manufactured through the industry. It obviously wasn’t as big a deal for us, because we did it.”
Ledger (with Michelle Williams at the New York City premiere of Brokeback Mountain) called meeting the actress the turning point of his career. “I’m so proud,” he told Oprah Winfrey in 2006. “I just fall deeper and deeper in love with both my girls.” That second girl being the couple’s daughter, Matilda, born on Oct. 28, 2005. “It’s what I’ve always wanted,” the self-proclaimed Mr. Mom said in 2006. “She’s just adorable. A beautifully observant, wise little kid.”
Ledger kept a sense of humor despite losing out on Best Actor to Philip Seymour Hoffman at the 2006 Oscars. He once said, “I think that flattery is just as dangerous or destructive as criticism. I think it’s all one thing.”
Ledger and Williams planted their family in Brooklyn, New York, where the actor easily blended with the locals. Ledger, who moved to Manhattan after the couple's split, was an unassuming fixture in his brownstone neighborhood, often spotted taking Matilda for walks, skateboarding or stopping by local restaurants.
Ledger and Williams (at the 2007 Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica, California) called it quits after three years together, just five months before his death. “It was rocky for a while,” a source told PEOPLE. “They did what they could to make it work.” Ledger later became a regular at New York City nightclubs and was even spotted with model Helena Christensen, but another source said he was “bummed” about the breakup.
In September 2007, Ledger traveled to the Venice Film Festival to promote his Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There. Relating to the film, he said: "I feel like I live a kind of gypsy type lifestyle … struggling with keeping consistency with a family life, a social life and a professional life."
After the split, Ledger had been working often and had wrapped The Dark Knight. Just days before he was found dead in N.Y.C., he was spotted out in London, where he was dressed in a clown suit to film Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and in street clothes chatting up the film crew. The film would be his last.
"I had such great hope for him," said former costar Mel Gibson, a fellow Australian. "He was just taking off and to lose his life at such a young age is a tragic loss."
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