Heath Ledger: A Budding Career Cut Tragically Short

Heath Ledger broke hearts as Ennis Del Mar, the taciturn cowboy who maintains a secret 20-year affair with another man in 2005's gay landmark, Brokeback Mountain.

Now Ledger is breaking hearts for real. He died Tuesday at the peak of his brief career. The 28-year-old actor's naked body was found in a New York apartment by a housekeeper and a masseuse, according to police, who said signs point to suicide.

Brokeback, the cinematic groundbreaker directed by Ang Lee and co-starring Jake Gyllenhaal, was embraced by gay and straight moviegoers alike, collecting $83 million at the box office on a $14 million budget.

The tragic Western allowed the Aussie actor a chance to finally erase the teen-hunk label that he was saddled with ever since his breakthrough in 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You, Disney's high-school takeoff on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Ledger not only earned respect for his work on Brokeback but also won an Oscar nomination for his efforts.

He also met and fell for his co-star Michelle Williams. The romance lasted long enough to produce daughter Matilda, now 2.

Ledger, whose first name was taken from Heathcliff in the gothic literary romance Wuthering Heights, told USA TODAY in 2005 that his performance in Brokeback was inspired by his 60-year-old uncle who hid his homosexuality most of his life.

"It was only a couple of years ago that he really came out to me and my friends," he said. "He is really tough, the most masculine man out there. He had to overcompensate." Following his example, "I wanted to create the most masculine character I've played to date."

Until Brokeback, the depth of his latent talent was kept in a closet. Only his role as Billy Bob Thornton's browbeaten son in Monster's Ball hinted at his mostly untapped emoting ability. He and Mel Gibson did make an interesting father-son pairing in the 2000 Revolutionary War epic, The Patriot.

The majority of Ledger's résumé, until recently, was a litany of premises gone wrong (A Knight's Tale, The Order) and missed opportunities (The Brothers Grimm, Lords of Dogtown).

Lately, his work opportunities were looking up. In 2007, he performed one of six interpretations of Bob Dylan in I'm Not There. Most impressively, he won a role of a lifetime as The Joker, complete with a lipstick-smeared leer, in The Dark Knight, this summer's highly anticipated follow-up to 2005's Batman Begins.

He called playing the Caped Crusader's nemesis "the most fun I've ever had with a character. He's just so out of control — no empathy. He's a sociopath, a psychotic, mass-murdering clown. And, I'm just thoroughly enjoying it."

As for personal happiness, he seemed to have found it, at least for a time, with Williams and their baby.

"Any hype or excitement around work doesn't mean anything," he told USA TODAY in the fall of 2005. "Having this child takes any pressure off my shoulders in terms of what people think of the movies. It doesn't matter."