Jan. 23, 2008 -- The death of Australian actor Heath Ledger has stunned the world and left his fans, friends and family and those he worked with devastated.
He was found dead in his New York City apartment Tuesday; he was 28 years old. Preliminary autopsy results were inconclusive, and the medical examiners says more tests are needed. Police have confirmed the possibility that the death may have been caused by an overdose of prescription drugs.
Those close to him describe a man full of heart and potential. Todd Haynes, who directed Ledger in his last film, "I'm Not There," said, "Ledger had a bit of James Dean in him and now Ledger, like Dean, has died young … just as he was trying to find his place in the film industry."
Ledger was born in Perth, Australia, in 1979. He was the son of a mining engineer and French teacher. He started in amateur theater playing Peter Pan then took some TV roles and appeared in some independent films.
At 19, he moved to Los Angeles and landed a role in the movie "10 Things I Hate About You." In that breakthrough role, Ledger played a young rebel suitor to his co-star Julia Stiles.
Ledger was said to be uncomfortable with playing the heartthrob, and in fact turned down work for nearly a year before finding another role with the help of another Aussie sensation — Mel Gibson. Again, Ledger took on the part of the rebel, this time as the son of Gibson's character in the American Revolution drama "The Patriot."
"I had such great hope for him," Gibson said in a statement. "He was just taking off and to lose his life at such a young age is a tragic loss," he continued. "My thoughts and prayers are with him and his family."
Actress Nicole Kidman, who hails from Australia, also released a statement saying in part, "What a tragedy. My heart goes out to his family."
In follow-up films, Ledger sought the unpredictable, including the role of a medieval hero in "A Knight's Tale," a resentful son in "Monster's Ball" and a surf-shop owner in the skateboard film "Lords of Dogtown."
But it was "Brokeback Mountain" where he played the part of Ennis, the suffering cowboy struggling with homosexuality, for which he is probably best-known. The performance earned him Oscar, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations and thrust him into the role of smoldering star.
"Brokeback" director Ang Lee called working with Ledger,"one of the purest joys of my life." Lang told The Associated Press in an e-mail message that Ledger "brought to the role of Ennis more than any of us could have imagined - a thirst for life, for love, and for truth, and a vulnerability that made everyone who knew him love him. His death is heartbreaking."
While shooting the film, Ledger began a romance with his on-screen wife, actress Michelle Williams. In 2005 the couple had a baby girl, Matilda Rose.
"I have a family, a beautiful family and two beautiful girls, thanks to 'Brokeback Mountain,'" Ledger once said.
In September 2007, the couple split, but in New York you could always see Ledger with his daughter. He even once described having to be away from her as "it's kind of like your whole body has a lump in its throat."
Williams and Matilda have left Trollhattan, Sweden, where the 27-year-old actress had been shooting scenes for the upcoming film "Mammoth," said Martin Stromberg, a spokesman for the film production company Memfis Film. "She received the news at her hotel late last night," Stromberg told The Associated Press.
In a now-eerie interview with MTV in November, Ledger reflected on death and his daughter. "I feel good about dying now, because I feel like I'm alive in her, but at the same time, you don't want to die because you want to be around for the rest of her life," he said.
Later this year, Ledger is slated to appear as the Joker in "The Dark Knight," the latest film in the "Batman" franchise. In a November interview with The New York Times, he revealed how he'd thrown himself into the role, saying, "Last week, I probably slept an average of two hours a night. … I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going."
Ledger was rumored to be dating Australian model Gemma Ward shortly before his death.
Back in Perth, Ledger's father said the actor's death was "tragic, untimely and accidental." Kim Ledger told reporters that his son was "down-to-earth, generous, kindhearted, life-loving, unselfish" and "extremely inspirational to many," he told reporters. "Heath has touched so many people on so many different levels during his short life," he said.
Hundreds of fans and onlookers gathered outside Ledger's Soho apartment Tuesday evening; as the news of his death spread, a makeshift memorial of flowers and notes was started.
Ledger was a widely recognized figure in his Manhattan neighborhood, where neighbor Michelle Vella said she frequently saw him carrying his 2-year-old daughter on his shoulders or having ice cream with her.
"It's a shock. He's so young," Taren Dolbashian told the AP. "He always seems so happy."