What Happened to Heath Ledger – The Story Behind How He Died

Heath Ledger was a critically acclaimed actor whose sudden accidental death cut his impressive career short.

Starting on humble stage plays and minor roles in television shows, Heath eventually made his way to feature films. He had the courage to reject the roles that he did not like, and instead carefully selected only the challenging characters that put his acting skills to the test. From controversial love affairs, to a complex character with zero empathy, Heath proved that his performances are always phenomenal regardless of what role he portrayed.

If you want to know more about what really happened to Heath Ledger, read on:

 

The rising star


Heath Andrew Ledger was born to parents Sally Ledger Bell, a teacher, and mining engineer / racecar driver Kim Ledger, on April 04, 1979. Similar to his sister Catherine, Heath was named after a main character of the Emily Bronte novel Wuthering Heights. Growing up in Perth, Heath studied in Mary’s Mount Primary School, then transferred to Guilford Grammar School wherein he played the role of Peter Pan in one of the school’s productions. This was considered to be his first experience in acting.

As he grew up, Heath was engaged in go-karting thanks to his father’s major involvement in racing and motor sports. He was also very active in sports like hockey, Australian-rules football and cricket. He claimed that he engaged himself in sports to avoid being trained to shoot rifles as a cadet.  An avid chess player, Heath participated in tournaments, and up to his adulthood he played the board game on public places like the Washington Square Park. The young Heath also loved abstract art, riddling his room’s walls and ceiling with

At the age of ten, his parents separated, culminating in a divorce one year later. His mother remarried soon afterwards and had a daughter, Ashleigh. His father also had a daughter, Olivia, with his second wife.

Heath’s love for acting equaled his passion for dance, with his love of the strong spirited Gene Kelly as his major inspiration. His sister Kate, who was an actress at that time, served as his on-stage acting inspiration. These performance arts served him and his all-boy team of 60 during the Rock Eisteddfod Challenge, a dance competition with specific topics, where they claimed victory despite their topic being about fashion. Heath personally choreographed his team’s dance piece of eight minutes, with all the 60 boys were military school farmers with zero dancing experience.

Heath landed a minor ten minute role in the 1991 family movie Clowning Around. Heath’s name didn’t even appear in the credits because of how minor his role was.  Two years later, he again had a minor role in the Australian television series Ship to Shore.

During a performance of Hamlet in school, 15-year-old Heath caught the eye of Annie Murtagh-Monks, a casting agent. She saw Heath’s raw talent in the realm of acting, but she did not see him with an ambition to become a renowned actor at that age.

heath-ledger-sweat

Annie Murtagh-Monks helped pave the way for Heath’s next acting venture by casting him in Sweat, a 1996 drama series. Heath was given two roles to choose from: a gay cyclist or a swimmer. He chose the former as it was the more challenging role that can sharpen his skills in acting. Despite the series ending in just 26 episodes, Heath’s performance got him the attention of newfound fans and the press.

 

Seeing that Western Australia is not the place for new opportunities, Heath sought to finish his exams early. He borrowed money from his folks and left for a five-day drive from Perth to Sydney with his childhood friend Trevor DiCarlo. It was here in Sydney where the 17-year-old Heath scored his first feature film role as Toby Ackland in the movie Blackrock. The role was small, but it helped Heath get noticed in Australia thanks to his performance and the movie’s phenomenal success in the country.

His acting career branched off to more opportunities. He portrayed a student in the 1997 family film Paws, guest roles in the children’s series Bush Patrol and Corrigan, a sitcom. He appeared in ten episodes of Home and Away, a long-running soap opera that helped other young actors in their careers like Guy Pearce, Naomi Watts, and Simon Baker. It was Heath’s major break in Australia, but his name was not yet known in other countries.

It was also in 1997 when the opportunity to become recognized in the United States made itself known to Heath. The U.S. fantasy adventure series Roar was set for shooting in Queensland, and Heath auditioned for a role. The screen test was held in Los Angeles, California, and the nervous and jet-lagged Heath was a bit younger for the role he was gunning for. Despite the age difference, Heath still managed to land the part of Connor, the main character of the series, thanks to his maturity. Roar was critically panned, but Heath did earn some praises for his performance. The flopped series also cost Heath an opportunity to cast in Roswell as, during the audition, the network executives remembered him from Roar and did not want to risk the big-budget science fiction series with an actor who came from a show panned by both critics and audiences alike.

Roar did carve the way for Heath’s next path, as he met co-star Lisa Zane and the two dated. She convinced Heath to move to Los Angeles with her and try their luck in Hollywood.

Upon arrival in California, Heath spent some time talking to agents. His efforts got him the attention of the Creative Artists’ Agency (CAA), one of the biggest talent agencies in a global scale, and Heath was signed with veteran agent Steve Alexander. The CAA is known to have represented many big stars like George Clooney, Kevin Costner, Oprah Winfrey, and Brad Pitt.

heath-ledger-two-hands

Heath’s first film under the agency was Two Hands, a dark comedy where he played the role of Jimmy, a rugged street kid. Even though it was just months ago when Heath arrived in America, the film brought him back home to Australia. Heath was personally visited by Australian director Gregor Jordan, who was impressed by Heath’s acting in Roar, and convinced the actor to take the lead role. Heath did not think twice in accepting the offer as he was thrilled to work with the director. Bryan Brown, one of Heath’s idols in acting, played the role of the film’s antagonist. Two Hands bagged awards from the Australian Film Institute, was well-received in reviews, and gave Heath a Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role nomination but failed to win it. His work in Two Hands helped push his acting credibility further.

Heath secured another movie deal just two weeks after the Two Hands production wrapped up. He went back to America and auditioned for the romantic comedy movie 10 Things I Hate About You. Loosely based on the Shakespeare comedy Taming of the Shrew, Heath starred with Julia Stiles, Larisa Oleynik, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It was in this movie where Heath showcased his song-and-dance talent that was clearly inspired by his childhood idol Gene Kelly. After its release in March 1999, the movie was a big hit to teenagers, and Heath earned around $100,000 for his performance.

As his popularity soared, the studios wanted to groom Heath as the next teen heartthrob with a focus on high school movies. But it was not the kind of future in this career Heath wanted for himself. Despite living in ramen noodles and barely making enough to pay for rent, Heath turned down movie offers that did not steer him towards the path he longed to tread on. He planned on rebuilding his acting career even if it meant having to destroy it first.

Heath’s patience eventually paid off. He was called to audition for a role in the big-budget war movie The Patriot alongside Mel Gibson. Halfway through the audition, Heath failed to deliver a good performance. Disheartened, he stopped performing, apologized, and then walked out of the audition.  Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the film’s producer and director respectively, appreciated Heath’s honesty and efforts and invited him for a second try. The actor got the role of Gabriel Martin, and critics gave The Patriot positive reviews.

Heath got more roles after his performance in The Patriot. He appeared in the 2001 erotic drama Monster’s Ball, and as the lead in the comedy A Knight’s Tale in the same year. It was also in 2001 when Heath took home a ShoWest Male Star of Tomorrow award.

The following years saw Heath with more leading roles, namely:

The Four Feathers (2002)

The Order (2003)

Ned Kelly (2003)

Casanova (2005)

The Brothers Grimm (2005)

Lords of Dogtown (2005)

By this time, Heath was touted as one of the three names in Hollywood’s next big thing, alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Josh Hartnett.

His career flew up to greater heights after his performance in Brokeback Mountain, a gay romantic filmheath-ledger-brokeback-mountain where he paired with Jake Gyllenhaal. The film was critically acclaimed, with the screen performance of the two actors compared to the best of Sean Penn and Marlon Brando. Heath received nominations for an Academy Award for Best Actor, and a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Drama. At 26 years of age, he was the ninth-youngest Academy Award nominee. Brokeback Mountain was well-received compared to Heath’s other movies during 2005.

It was also in Brokeback Mountain where he met and eventually dated co-star Michelle Williams. Their relationship was the stuff of gossip blogs and pages during that time, and the worsening intrusion of their privacy in Australia forced the pair to move in Brooklyn, New York. On October 28, 2005, the two had their first baby named Matilda Rose.

Heath was incredibly popular and successful that he was now able to choose among the dozens of movie offers that came to him. He always picked the challenging roles that tested his acting prowess. Heath played the role of heroin-addicted Dan in Candy (2006) wherein he received three Best Actor nominations, and an invitation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences along with 120 other celebrity heavyweights including Jake Gyllenhaal.

His next film was the 2007 Bob Dylan biographical film I’m Not There where he played the role of Robbie, Bob Dylan’s romanticist side. Heath posthumously shared the Robert Altman Award during the 23rd Independent Spirit Awards with the film’s cast, casting director, and director. It was also in 2007 when Heath and Michelle Williams went on their separate ways.

Heath expressed his aspirations in pursuing a career in directing films. He directed music videos for two tracks of Australian rapper N’fa, Modest Mouse, Grace Woodroofe, and for the song “Morning Yearning” by Ben Harper. He also announced his desire to shoot a documentary about Nick Drake, a singer-songwriter who succumbed to an antidepressant overdose. Heath created and appeared in the music video for “Black Eyed Dog”, one of Drake’s songs about depression. The video was only shown twice, and eventually spread online after Heath’s death.

heath-ledger-joker

The penultimate film Heath worked on was in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in 2008, where he portrayed the psychopathic supervillain The Joker. His performance as a clown in The Brothers Grimm helped influence this darker role. Jack Nicholson, the legendary actor of the previous Joker incarnation, warned Heath of the negative effects in portraying such a complex role. His casting for the villain was initially received negatively when it was announced but, after the release of the first trailer, Heath was highly praised for his performance. His portrayal earned him many posthumous awards, and many positive mentions from magazines, colleagues, and critics.

His last performance was in the movie The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The actor only managed to
complete half of his role before his death, and it led to the disruption of the film’s production. The film was finished with the help of Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp, and Jude Law in portraying Heath’s character through fantasy transformations.

 

Health decline

 

After his work in I’m Not There and The Dark Knight, Heath began having troubles with his sleeping pattern. He was only able to get around two hours of rest, forcing him to rely on sleeping pills. He complained that his mind was still energetic, despite physical exhaustion, making it difficult for Heath to get proper sleep. In an interview after the actor’s death, Ex-fiancée Michelle Williams confirmed Heath’s plight with sleeping, saying that he struggled with insomnia for quite a long time.

On January 22, 2008, 2:45 PM, the actor was found unconscious in his apartment at Manhattan.  Diana Wolozin, Heath’s masseuse, arrived at 3:00 PM for an appointment with the actor. She and housekeeper Teresa Solomon found Heath naked near his bed, and Wolozin called Mary-Kate Olsen, Heath’s friend, as the actor was unresponsive. Wolozin then called 9-1-1, wherein the operator urged the masseuse to administer CPR, but to no avail. At 3:33 PM, paramedics arrived and attempted to revive Heath. At 3:36 PM, the actor was declared dead. That night, flowers and memorial tributes were left by fans and media crews that gathered outside his apartment.

After two weeks, the conclusions on the autopsy and toxicological analysis revealed Heath’s cause of death as an accidental intoxication of prescribed medications. Investigations regarding how Heath obtained the lethal combination of drugs that ended his life ceased as there were no leads.

Heath’s body was returned to Perth after the memorial ceremonies, where it was cremated and his ashes interred at Karrakatta Cemetery, along with his two grandparents in their family plot.

 

Heath’s legacy

 

On September 27, 2008, Kim Ledger stated that the $16.3 million fortune of Heath was left to Matilda Rose.

On January 22, 2009, a year after his death, it was announced that Heath was nominated for Best Supporting Actor during the 81st Academy Awards. He won the posthumous award a month later, and he was the second person to do so, with Peter Finch being the first (who is also an Australian actor). Heath’s family accepted the award.

heath-ledger-theatre

The State Theatre Centre of Western Australia honored the late actor by naming one of their theatres as Heath Ledger Theatre. His Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor was displayed next to the Joker costume in the theatre’s entrance hall.



3 COMMENTS

  1. Heath had issues with insomnia ALL of his life. Not after filming in 2007.
    His ashes are not in that cemetery.
    His will left certain things and money to his parents/sisters and a separate trust and life insurance policy went to his child.
    The doctors who prescribed the medications were found and investigated. Nothing happened beyond that because they did nothing wrong. Heath had real health issues.
    It’s spelled Conor not Connor.
    This reads like you copied and pasted Wikipedia.
    Thanks for not calling him a drug addict or that he went insane from playing the joker though.
    Miss you Heath.

    • Insomnia is a complex (involves psychosomatic factors) condition to properly diagnose. It remains, even today, poorly treated and not taken seriously enough – despite its long-term impact on overall health.

      Ledger specified his condition had escalated since Fall ’06 (during the Haynes film.) It’s improbable he had consistently 1-2 hours per day of sleep all his life. Nobody lives on such meager sleep, for that long. The condition exacerbated at a certain point in his adult life, which he pinpointed.

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