Three weeks into the new year, he was gone. On the afternoon of January 22, 2008, the actor’s body was discovered by a massage therapist who had an appointment with Ledger at his SoHo, Manhattan, residence. Paramedics arrived at the scene and attempted CPR, but it was too late.
A toxicology report revealed that he had several prescription opioid and benzodiazepine medications in his system, which led to an accidental lethal overdose. He was 28 years old.
The star’s career barely spanned two decades – but he’d more than made his mark as an actor. From his breakout international role in 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You to 2000’s The Patriot, 2001’s Monster’s Ball, 2005’s Brokeback Mountain – for which he received a Best Actor Oscar nomination – and his iconic turn as the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight, Ledger displayed impressive talent.
“I only do this because I’m having fun,” he once said of his career. “The day I stop having fun, I’ll just walk away.”
But his commitment to his work could never be denied. Speaking to The New York Times, Ledger had mentioned his struggles with insomnia.
“Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night,” he said in November 2007.
“I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.”
At the time, rumours swirled that his restlessness had amplified since being consumed by his intense role as the Joker in The Dark Knight. Since then, friends and family have downplayed that narrative.
“I cringe when I read that he was a tortured soul or a Method actor who couldn’t get out of his own way because he’d played this dark character,” his friend and long-time agent Steve Alexander told Entertainment Weekly in 2009. “It’s just not true.”
His sister Kate Ledger, a former film publicist who worked as Ledger’s Australian publicist, has since echoed the sentiment.
“The Dark Knight was the most fun Heath has ever had on a film set,” she told WHO in 2018.
“He would send me rushes of the scenes and we would laugh about what he was going to do with the character.”
With only 33 minutes of screen time in the film, he would go on to posthumously win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in 2009.
At the time of his death, Ledger was battling sickness from a week straight of night shoots in London for Terry Gillam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
“We all caught colds because we were shooting outside on horrible, damp nights,” his co-star Christopher Plummer recounted to WHO’s sister publication People magazine in 2008.
“But Heath’s went on. I think what he did have was the walking pneumonia…We just kept shooting, boom, boom, boom, there was no pause. It was very, very hard work.”
On a personal front, Ledger was also reeling from his September 2007 split from actress Michelle Williams, now 40, with whom he shared two-year-old daughter Matilda. The pair had met in 2004 on the set of Brokeback Mountain, for which they both received their first Oscar nomination.
When they welcomed their daughter in October 2005, Ledger – who previously had high-profile romances with actresses Naomi Watts and Heather Graham – felt he had landed the role of his lifetime.
Family, “is everything to me – the most important thing I do”, the actor admitted in a 2006 interview. “Before, I felt like I was floating through life, like a ghost; I may not have even existed.”
In 2017, Ledger’s childhood friend Kane Manera told People that fatherhood came naturally to the actor.
“The shape of his body changed,” he said. “He became warmer – it was like he would stand in a way with Matilda that you knew they were linked.”
Despite their adoration for their daughter, Ledger and Williams couldn’t make it work.
“That baby was the light of both of their lives,” Williams’ best friend and Matilda’s godmother Busy Phillips wrote in her 2018 memoir.
“It was complicated. S--t is always complicated. Especially when you’re twenty-eight. And movie stars. With a baby.”
Left to raise their daughter alone, Williams told Vanity Fair in 2018 that she “never gave up on love” and has made a point of keeping Ledger’s legacy alive in the life of Matilda.
“I always say to Matilda, ‘Your dad loved me before anybody thought I was talented, or pretty, or had nice clothes,’” she said.
After a brief marriage to indie musician Phil Elverum, the media-shy star secretly wed Fosse/Verdon director Thomas Kail in March 2020 and they welcomed a child together in June.
The actress has also kept the love alive with Ledger’s family, including his sister Kate. In 2017, she praised Williams for being “really grounded and down to earth”, telling People her niece, now a 15-year-old who towers over her diminutive mum, reminds her of her late brother.
“When [Matilda] picks up her pencil, it reminds me of Heath; when she walks, it reminds me of Heath; when she gets on her skateboard, it reminds me of Heath,” she said.
A year later, Kate told WHO their bond remains strong.
“We keep in constant contact with Michelle and Matilda and visit frequently,” she said. “We cherish his beautiful girl and all the memories that we have. Like anyone who has lost a family member, his loss is still enormous, and we feel it every day.”
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