If you tell someone over the age of 30 that it’s been 13 years since Heath Ledger died, they’re probably not going to believe you. The actor was so iconic and omnipresent that, in some ways, it feels like he’s still around. Ever since the actor’s untimely and tragic death in 2008, Hollywood has been trying to fill the void left behind, but no one is quite like Ledger. With a devotion to method acting that brought iconic characters to life, a gentle smile, and a list of beloved movies a mile long, Ledger left behind big shoes to fill. 13 years after his passing, we’re remembering the man behind the movies, and the legacy he left behind.
Ledger’s Life and Early Career
Heath Ledger was born April 4, 1979, in Perth, Australia. The future acting star was the son of Sally Ledger Bell, a French teacher, and Kim Ledger, a racecar driving and mining specialist. Ledger had one sister and two half-sisters. Heath and his sister Kate, named after Emily Bronte‘s Wuthering Heights characters, were close. Ledger often credited her for being the inspiration behind his acting career.
Ledger was a chess prodigy, and won championships at a young age. The young Ledger’s parents divorced when he was 11, and he sought emotional balance and positvity in acting, choreography, and dance. Biography.com writes, “At age 16, Ledger completed his early graduation exams, and he traveled cross-country to Sydney to pursue an acting career with his longtime friend Trevor DiCarlo.
After various small roles on television, Ledger’s feature film debut came in 1997 in the emotional drama Blackrock. This led to a starring role in the historical fantasy series Roar, costarring Keri Russell and backed by financiers in the United States. The series was nominated for several awards and exposed Ledger to American audiences and Fox executives.
On the urging of then-girlfriend Liza Zane (who also appeared in the series,) Ledger sought out an American agent and followed Zane back to Los Angeles at the age of 19.”
From there, it was onward and upward for the young star.
From Heartbreaker to Movie Legend
In 1999, the entire game would change for young Ledger in the form of a movie called, “10 Things I Hate About You.” A modern-day interpretation of Taming of the Shrew, 10 Things was an instant cult classic among teens and young adults. It would propel Ledger from aspiring young actor to heart-throb and superstar in a matter of months.
In 2000, Ledger beat out more well-established actors for roles alongside Mel Gibson in The Patriot, and alongside Billy Bob Thornton in Monster’s Ball.
But in 2001, Ledger was elevated another notch after landing the leading man role in A Knight’s Tale, another instant cult classic. That same year, People Magazine named him one of the 50 Most Beautiful People of 2001.
Ledger’s career was anything but linear, and the next mega-hit for the young star took some people by surprise. In 2005, Ledger played the role of an ostensibly straight cowboy who suddenly finds himself in a gay relationship with his work pal while isolated out on the range in Brokeback Mountain. Ledger and co-star Jake Gyllenhaal faced criticism and abuse for their role in the film, but both were lauded for their acting and it bolstered Ledger’s career despite the controversy.
On the set of Brokeback, Ledger fell in love with co-star Michelle Williams, and the pair welcomed daughter Matilda Rose in 2005.
Ledger Struggled with Sleep in His Final Months
In 2007, Ledger began work on the newest installment in the Christian Bale Batman series, The Dark Knight. Deeply immersed in the cerebral and unnerving role, Ledger admitted to struggling with sleep. Biogaphy shares, “Ledger had told The New York Times in November 2007 that he was taking Ambien, a prescription medication used for the short-term treatment of insomnia. He discussed the difficulty that he was having with portraying the Joker in the upcoming Batman movie The Dark Knight, a character he described as a ‘psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy.’
‘Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night,’ Ledger told the Times. ‘I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted and my mind was still going.'”
On January 22, 2008, Ledger was found dead in his apartment. The cause of death was officially an accidental drug overdose, likely caused by the actor’s desperation to sleep.
The Dark Knight, carried by Ledger’s disturbing and vibrant portrayal of Joker, was an instant hit in the wake of the actor’s death. Another film he was in the process of working on when he died, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, remained incomplete. In a tribute to the beloved actor, several big name Hollywood stars stepped in to reprise the role and complete the film, including Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.
Remembering Heath Ledger
It’s hard to imagine that nearly a decade and a half has passed since Ledger died. Daughter Matilda will turn 16 this year, and films will continue to be released that can’t include the actor’s signature smile and intense portrayals.
CheatSheat shares Williams’ thoughts after Ledger died; “Following Ledger’s death, Williams reflected on her life with her daughter. ‘I am the mother of the most tender-hearted, high-spirited, beautiful little girl who is the spitting image of her father,’ Williams said.
‘All that I can cling to is his presence inside her that reveals itself every day. His family and I watch Matilda as she whispers to trees, hugs animals, and takes steps two at a time, and we know that he is with us still. She will be brought up in the best memories of him.’”
Fellow actress and pal Kate Bosworth remembered him in 2019 in an Instagram post; “Doesn’t seem so long ago we were all running around LA, shotgunned into Hollywood + popping off the new millennium’s cork, having a laugh. It was a crazy time. I was literally straight out of high school, feeling young & super shy and he was always so sweet within a surreal scene. I really, really would have loved to have known Heath today, at 40. No limits on what he would have accomplished. Here is what I remember: he was sensitive, gentle, kind, wickedly funny. Extraordinarily special. Time goes by, his image still a teenage heartthrob. And his work. So brilliant + honest & he was just getting started. But to remember the Human. I was on the outer orbit. Imagine those close to the sun. Thinking of all the people who knew and loved him on this day. Man, you made one hell of a mark. xo.”
And per CheatSheet, “John Russo, a celebrity and fashion photographer, left [this comment], this time reflecting on his first photo shoot with Ledger.
‘I remember the first time I photographed him at his apartment in Hollywood. We were in the early stages of our careers. My lighting blew out the fuses in his apartment. We could not find the fuse box. We looked and looked and looked and it was nowhere. He finally realized someone (probably him! ) hung a mirror over it. We laughed our a–es off and continued our shoot. That was the first of many great shoots over the years with Heath. Glad I knew him ❤️.”
The beloved star, who would have been 41 today, left behind a legacy of devotion to his craft, friendship, and kindness. Those who remember him remember that no one was quite like Ledger, and although his roles can be reprised, they can never be duplicated. However, a 2019 film called Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix, physically evoked Ledger’s Joker and reminded fans that his influence is far from gone.
As the years pass and Ledger’s life fades farther into the past, memory of his imprint on Hollywood and the smiles he left behind aren’t going anywhere.