Too-brief career filled with risk

Ex-teen star excelled in 'Monster's Ball,' 'Brokeback'

Heath Ledger was found dead in a downtown Manhattan apartment Tuesday, with police saying drugs might have been a factor. The Australian actor was 28.

Ledger was in the middle of a break from shooting Terry Gilliam's fantasy adventure "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" and was due back on set in Vancouver later in the week. The film's producers were in meetings Tuesday afternoon in an effort to work around the tragedy.

Ledger had recently finished shooting Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Dark Knight," Christopher Nolan's sequel to "Batman Begins." Ledger's portrayal of the villainous Joker was already building buzz, and images of his scary psychopath were going to be a cornerstone of the marketing campaign. Principal photography had already wrapped on the feature, due to be released this summer, and additional shoots were seen as unlikely because of Nolan's thoroughness as a director. Ledger could have been needed for postproduction, however.

"The studio is stunned and devastated by this tragic news," Warners president Alan Horn and Warners Picture Group president Jeff Robinov said. "The entertainment community has lost an enormous talent. Heath was a brilliant actor and an exceptional person. Our hearts go out to his family and friends."

Ledger most recently appeared in "I'm Not There," in which he played one of the many incarnations of Bob Dylan.

According to a NYPD spokesman, Ledger was found in a SoHo apartment building at 421 Broome St. by a housekeeper. He was pronounced dead at about 3:30 p.m. The NYPD spokesman said Ledger's body was found naked in his bed, with an unknown number of sleeping pills lying near it. He said a medical examiner would have to examine the body to determine whether the pills had caused the death or whether there were other factors. There were no immediate signs of foul play, the spokesman added.

According to a medical examiner's spokeswoman, an autopsy is scheduled for today.

While not a marquee movie star, Ledger was a respected, award-winning actor who took his craft seriously rather than cashing in on his heartthrob looks. He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as a gay cowboy in "Brokeback Mountain," where he met Michelle Williams, who played his wife in the film. The two had a daughter, Matilda, and lived together in Brooklyn until they split up last year.

"Heath Ledger was a courageous actor and a great soul," said James Schamus, CEO of Focus, which released "Brokeback." "He gave us the gift of sharing his fearless and beautiful love — of his craft and of all who worked with him — for which all of us will be eternally grateful."

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."

The sleepy-eyed Ledger grew up in Perth and began doing amateur theater at age 10. At 16, he moved to Sydney to pursue acting, quickly landing TV movie roles and guest spots on Australian TV.

After several indie films and a starring role in the short-lived Fox TV series "Roar," Ledger moved to Los Angeles and co-starred in "10 Things I Hate About You," a teen comedy reworking of "The Taming of the Shrew." Instead of staying in the realm of teen movies, he focused on independent fare like "Monster's Ball," where he played Billy Bob Thornton's son, or on movies that allowed him to work with noted creators, like Gibson in "The Patriot." He also is remembered for starring in "A Knight's Tale," Brian Helgeland's medieval adventure.

Ledger told the New York Times in November 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.

Borys Kit reported from Los Angeles; Georg Szalai reported from New York. Leslie Simmons in Los Angeles and the Associated Press contributed to this report.