The Associated Press
NEW YORK — On a day meant for celebration in Hollywood, Heath Ledger, one of film’s bright young stars, was found dead at age 28, his promising career extinguished just as it was reaching full expression.
Hours after the Academy Award nominees were announced, pomp and circumstance gave way to the sad and ugly, as police said the Australian-born actor’s body was found naked in bed in a Manhattan apartment with sleeping pills nearby.
On the same occasion two years ago, Ledger was celebrating his first — and what would be his last — Oscar nomination, for his breakthrough performance as a conflicted, gay cowboy in “Brokeback Mountain.”
“The picture belongs to Ledger, whose downcast gaze and chewed-up words bear almost unbearable testimony to a heart under siege,” wrote New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane.
His next big role was to be a new, darker rendition of the Joker role that Jack Nicholson made famous in “Batman” — a typical leap for the versatile, risk-taking Ledger.
On the “Brokeback” set, Ledger met Michelle Williams, who played his wife in the film. The two had a daughter, now 2-year-old Matilda, and lived together in Brooklyn until they split up last year.
Throughout the film industry, his colleagues expressed sorrow that a real talent had been lost.
Nicole Kidman called it “a terrible tragedy.” Mel Gibson, who played Ledger’s vengeful father in 2000’s “The Patriot,” said, “I had such great hope for him. He was just taking off and to lose his life at such a young age is a tragic loss.”
It wasn’t immediately clear if Ledger had committed suicide. He had an appointment for a massage at the residence in the tony neighborhood of SoHo, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said. A housekeeper who went to let him know the massage therapist had arrived found him dead at 3:26 p.m.
“We are all deeply saddened and shocked by this accident,” Ledger’s publicist, Mara Buxbaum, said in a statement Tuesday night. “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.”
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 theater 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, “Seat.”
After several independent films, Ledger moved to Los Angeles at age 19 and costarred opposite Julia Stiles in “10 Things I Hate About You.” Offers for other teen flicks soon came his way, but Ledger turned them down, preferring to remain idle than sign on for projects he didn’t like.
“It wasn’t a hard decision for me,” Ledger told the Associated Press 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.”’
Though his leading-man looks propelled him to early stardom in films like “A Knight’s Tale” (2001), his career took a notable turn toward dramatic and brooding roles with 2001’s “Monster’s Ball.”
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 fictionalized version of a cult classic skateboarding documentary, in 2004.
Ledger eschewed Hollywood glitz in favor of a bohemian life in Brooklyn, where he and Williams were briefly two of the borough’s most famous residents. “Brokeback” would be his breakthrough role, establishing him as one of his generation’s finest talents.
Ledger began to gravitate more toward independent fare, including Lasse Hallstrom’s “Casanova” and Terry Gilliam’s “The Brothers Grimm,” both released in 2005. His 2006 film “Candy” now seems destined to have an especially haunting quality: In a particularly realistic performance, Ledger played a poet wrestling with a heroin addiction along with his girlfriend, played by Abbie Cornish.
But Ledger’s most recent choices were arguably the boldest yet: He costarred in “I’m Not There,” playing one of the many incarnations of Bob Dylan — as did Cate Blanchett, whose performance in that film earned an Oscar nomination Tuesday for best supporting actress.
And in what may be his final finished performance, Ledger proved that he wouldn’t be intimidated by taking on a character as iconic as Nicholson’s Joker. Ledger’s version of the “Batman” villain, glimpsed in early teaser trailers, made it clear that his Joker would be less comical and more depraved and dark.
Curiosity about Ledger’s final performance will likely further stoke interest in the summer blockbuster.
“It was a very great challenge for Heath,” said “Dark Knight” director Christopher Nolan earlier this month. “He’s extremely original, extremely frightening, tremendously edgy. A very young character, a very anarchic presence that taps into a lot of our basic fears and panic.”
Ledger 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 newspaper. “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 most recently was in production for “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” a reunion with Gilliam. How far along that project was wasn’t clear Tuesday. Calls to Gilliam weren’t immediately returned.
But even at that early date of “A Knight’s Tale,” Ledger was seeking to remove himself from the glare of the media and celebrity. Asked about his increasing fame, Ledger acknowledged he was nervous and self-conscious about it — and nearly hoped for the failure of the film.
“If the movie doesn’t do well,” said Ledger, laughing, “maybe I’ll escape it.”
Associated Press Writers Tom Hays and Sara Kugler contributed to this report.