10 things we loved — and still miss — about Heath Ledger
Ten years ago, on Jan. 22, 2008, the world was heartbroken to learn of 28-year-old actor Heath Ledger’s untimely death by accidental overdose. A toxicology report later revealed that it had been caused by “acute intoxication by the combined effects of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam, and doxylamine.” Hollywood hasn’t been the same since losing the 10 Things I Hate About You star. Here are some of the things we adored about one of the most talented actors to grace the screen.
1. His smile.
Everything about Ledger was electric — so much so that director Ang Lee, who worked with him on Brokeback Mountain, declared him a scene stealer. “That’s the power of Heath Ledger,” Lee said in the 2017 documentary I Am Heath Ledger. And that power was encapsulated in Ledger’s smile, which could light up a room, make men and women swoon, and thaw blocks of ice, we’re sure.
2. His passion for life.
As singer and Ledger friend Ben Harper put it in the documentary, Ledger was “the most alive human. If it wasn’t on the edge, it didn’t interest him.”
That desire to live so expansively fed into everything he did — and washed off on those around him. As actress Julia Stiles, his co-star in 10 Things I Hate About You, put it in a December 2017 interview with news.com.au, “He was always a delight,” adding that he brought levity to their time on set. “He had a didgeridoo he’d bring with him and he’d play every day… I’d never seen one before, it was such a novelty.”
3. His relationship with Michelle Williams…
Sadly, his relationship with his Brokeback Mountain co-star didn’t end well. The two split shortly before his death, reportedly because of Ledger’s personal demons and alleged drug use. But in the beginning, he and Williams created a powerful bond that started when they crashed while tobogganing together on set. After that, they played cards, had intimate dinners, and swam at the hotel pool together. Ledger loaded Williams’s iPod with music he liked. He often embraced Williams after difficult scenes, apologizing for being “rough” on her, according to People. It wasn’t long after they finished filming that Williams discovered she was pregnant.
4. …and his daughter, Matilda.
Ledger embraced his role as a father when Williams gave birth to daughter Matilda in October 2005. He gleefully declared he had the role of “manny” when Williams was working. (She was the “nanny” when he was gone.)
Their Brooklyn, NY, neighbors reported how happy Ledger seemed to be when Matilda was fitted with her first pair of shoes. “She was always on his shoulders,” designer Michelle Vella told People in February 2008. “You don’t see men acting so comfortably with their kids. It was amazing.”
After his split from Williams, Ledger created a replica of Matilda’s Brooklyn bedroom in his New York loft — a task that turned into a daddy-daughter activity. Said his friend and business partner Matt Amato, “He was a natural; he knew what to do with a baby right away.”
5. His love of film.
His professional persona aside, Ledger’s commitment to film went way beyond what we saw onscreen. “There were always cameras around — a video camera or a Polaroid camera or the film camera,” said Christina Cauchi, the Australian model who dated Ledger from 2000 to 2002. “That’s the only way I think of him. With the camera in the hand.”
And his commitment to film lives on. In the wake of Ledger’s death, his family established the Heath Ledger Scholarship through Australians in Film to support Australian actors trying to make it in Hollywood. “Heath himself helped so many of his Aussie actor mates by letting them stay at his house when in L.A.,” his sister, Kate, told People. “It is with this same generosity we continue the legacy.”
6. His willingness to dive into a role.
Ledger was legendary for bringing an otherworldly commitment to every part he played. As Brokeback Mountain co-star Jake Gyllenhaal recalled to Fresh Air in July 2015, “It was an intimate and really scary thing for me and Heath, in particular, to dive into,” Gyllenhaal said. “It was uncomfortable for both of us in some of the scenes, and yet we both deeply believed in what the movie was saying.”
Of course, that commitment was epic when he took on — and took over — the role of the Joker in The Dark Knight. In 2013, Ledger’s father, Kim, shared a disturbing diary Ledger kept in preparation for the role on the German documentary Too Young to Die. Kim revealed Ledger also locked himself in a hotel room for weeks to prepare. “He galvanized the upcoming character,” Kim said. “That was typical of Heath. He would do that. He liked to dive into his characters, but this time he really took it up a notch.”
7. His capacity for silliness.
Ledger knew how to bring the seriousness, but when all that got to be a bit too much, he’d turn on his sense of humor. “Heath’s fun clouded its way through a room,” actor Wes Bentley, who co-starred with Ledger in Four Feathers, told Entertainment Weekly in January 2009. “It was infectious. If you were stuck in an elevator with him, you’d be entertained. He liked to go to Vegas dressed snazzy. He’d walk the streets of Vegas and never really have a plan, dressed up in a pink blazer and a tie.”
8. His generosity.
Even though he didn’t enjoy aspects of living his life in public, Ledger still made time for his fans, signing autographs and showing appreciation for their support. He was also ridiculously generous with fellow Aussie actors trying to make it big in L.A., as actress Rose Byrne noted in April 2015 on the Australian morning show Sunrise. “He always had multiple people staying at his house, like me,” she said. “There was an open-door policy, he always helped, and he would always pay for everything.”
Ledger even turned down roles he felt were destined for other actors, like when he said no to playing the lead in Spider-Man and told his agent, “It’s not for me. I would be taking someone else’s dream away.”
9. His desire to lead a normal life despite his fame.
In the wake of being nominated for — and losing — the Academy Award for Best Actor for Brokeback Mountain, Ledger told director Catherine Hardwicke, “I don’t want to work. I want to take a year or two off where Michelle and I will move to Holland and ride bikes.”
Indeed, fame didn’t really interest him; instead of settling in Hollywood, he and Williams moved to Brooklyn when they were together, where he raked leaves and skateboarded. Kane Manera, a childhood friend, told People in April 2017 that Ledger wanted his friends to “ignore” his fame.
10. His close relationship with his parents and siblings.
The love that Ledger and his family had for each other was undeniable. His sister, Kate, referred to him as her “soul mate,” in a new interview with People. “We spoke almost every day regardless of where Heath was in the world or what he was doing,” she said. “Our conversations ranged from talking about projects to what we were having for dinner! Nothing was off limits.” She and her family accepted the posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar that he won for his performance in The Dark Knight. As Kate recalled, “I honestly didn’t know how I was going to get up but when the time came, we all felt a strong sense of peace and strength. We definitely felt Heath’s presence.”
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