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Heath Ledger: The Hollywood dream that turned to tragedy


2008-01-25 07:48:27

With just 96 cents in his pocket and a twinkle in his eye a teenage Heath Ledger went in search of his dream of becoming an actor. But on January 22, 2008, his extraordinary and successful journey came to an abrupt and tragic end.



The 28-year-old Australian-born actor was discovered naked on his bed in his New York apartment with various prescription pills strewn around the room.



At 3.35pm he was pronounced dead of a suspected accidental drugs overdose, and Ledger's legacy was confined to the catalogue of tragic stars who died too young.



Even as the black body bag was being taken out of the building three hours' after the actor's death, speculation was already rife about the cause of death, with talk of depression, substance abuse and even pneumonia, featuring highly among showbiz gossip.



The autopsy has, however, left questions unanswered, returning an "inconclusive" verdict. Nevertheless Ledger's death has sent ripples of shock through the showbiz world.



What makes the news even more difficult to fathom, is that unlike many of today's stars, the actor was not plagued by rampant tales of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.



If Wednesday's headlines had been about Britney Spears or Amy Winehouse the tragedy would not have been lessened, but in a sad way would have almost been expected.



Ledger was not like Winehouse or Spears, he did not appear to be unhinged or unstable, at worst he came across as aloof.



And while his indifference to the media was well known, his dedication to his craft was never questioned, and he was branded the next Marlon Brando. But delve deeper into his closely guarded world and an altogether darker picture of depression and drug dependency emerges.
From a wide-eyed teenager from Perth, to a critically acclaimed actor on the cusp of international superstardom, Ledger's Hollywood story started in the manner it would continue, with determination, passion and a true dedication to his craft.



As a student he excelled at sport - he was selected for the State of Western Australia under-17 hockey squad - and acting, with his debut film role coming when he was just 11-years-old in a small part in ‘Clowning Around' followed by a  role in TV series ‘Ship to Shore'.



At 16 Ledger abandoned his education and embarked on a cross-country road trip to Sydney in search of his big break.



His first regular TV role came as a gay cyclist in the Australian show 'Sweat', followed by a stint on the hugely popular soap ‘Home and Away, but his ‘big break' came in the form of a starring role as a Celtic warrior in the much-hyped but short-lived FOX drama 'Roar'.



In Ledger's words he then tried his luck in Hollywood "with no expectations and all the confidence of youth" and his gamble paid off.



In 1999, he was cast alongside Julia Stiles as the rebellious chauvinistic student who gets the uptight feminist girl in '10 Thing I Hate About You'.



As a ruggedly handsome 20-something Ledger could have easily slipped into the realm of the romantic lead, but being typecast as a ‘blonde himbo' was a notion Ledger deplored and the next five years saw him explore his abilities as a versatile actor.



His acting CV swelled playing roles such as Mel Gibson's head-strong soldier son in American Revolution movie 'The Patriot', a lovelorn squire in romantic comedy 'The Knight's Tale', a suicidal prison guard in thriller 'Monster's Ball', and Australia's most famous outlaw in ‘Ned Kelly'.
However, it was his portrayal as a confused gay cowboy in director Ang Lee's 2005 movie 'Brokeback Mountain' that really made moviegoers stand up and take notice.



The film was both a commercial and critical success - claiming three Oscars, four Golden Globes and four BAFTAs - and while Ledger's co-star Jake Gyllenhaal may have fared better with the awards count, the critics were in agreement that the brooding Aussie had stolen the screen as Ennis Del Mar.



His "magnificent" and "magical performance" garnered him the honour of being compared to a young Marlon Brando or Sean Penn and his true talent was finally being recognised.



'Brokeback Mountain' was also an important turning point in terms of Ledger's personal life.
It is on the set of the movie that he met and fell in love with his onscreen wife Michelle Williams.
Cast and crew described their romance as "love at first" sight and by the time the movie was causing a stir at the Venice Film Festival in September 2005, Williams was pregnant with the couple's first child and the pair were rumoured to be engaged.



Speaking about his love for Michelle, the actor said: "She's my soul mate and we couldn't love each other any more than we do already. We're like two peas in a pod."



Their daughter Matilda Rose Ledger was born on October 28, 2005, a month before ‘Brokeback Mountain' premiered in Los Angeles, and for a short time at least, the happy family seemed picture-book perfect.



The only shortcoming of the relationship seemed to be the increased media interest in their lives, something Ledger never felt comfortable with and was, seemingly very sensitive to.



The actor was reportedly reduced to tears at the Sydney premiere of ‘Brokeback Mountain' after two reporters attacked him and Williams with water pistols, following claims the star had spat at two journalists.



Williams later said: "They've been really tough on Heath, and he takes it personally. They've been tossing out this stuff about him being a spitter, and it's just so mean, and it really hurts his feelings. He's not that way at all. It's not true. The only spitter in our house is Matilda."



By September 2007, the couple's relationship would become the source of even greater media speculation as they announced they were separating.



Sources were quoted as saying the pair had grown apart since the birth of Matilda, while in the wake of Ledger's death others have come forward pointing the finger at the actor's partying and drug taking, with reports that he checked into rehab for heroin addiction around the time of the split. However, all official reports seemed to point to work pressures.



Certainly at the time of their split Ledger was stacking up film after film. He had wrapped the Bob Dylan biopic 'I'm Not There' – in which he starred along with Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale as one of seven Dylan personas and ironically played a character whose marriage was falling apart – and he was in the middle of shooting the new Batman movie 'The Dark Knight'. In fact, it has been speculated his dedication to his career was instrumental in his untimely death.



As a consummate perfectionist, Ledger was an ardent follower of the method-acting school of thought.



After being cast as a heroin addict in 2006 movie 'Candy' he entered an Australian rehab facility and learned how to inject heroin from a junkie, and following that he threw himself into what would be his last complete role as The Joker in ‘The Dark Knight' with equal vigour.
The star locked himself away in a hotel room for a month to become the "murderous psychopath".
But the strain of living up to his screen idol Jack Nicholson, who originally played the crazed villain, may have proved too much for Ledger and his efforts left him "sleepless and exhausted".
To combat his insomnia the actor resorted to taking the sleeping pill Ambien, which was tellingly discovered at the scene of his death along with five other prescription drugs.



Speaking last November, he said: "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."



At the time of his death Ledger had begun shooting Terry Gilliam's new fantasy movie 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus'.



And the weekend before his body was discover, he was pictured dressed in a clown's costume on the London set.



Looking dishevelled and drained, the sad image now ironically invokes the classic phrase 'tears of a clown'.



Ledger returned to New York just over a day before his death, and on Monday (21.01.08) he called his director friend director Shekhar Kapur from his New York apartment to arrange meeting up the next day.



Kapur said: "I last spoke to him the night before he died. He said he could not see me that night but really wanted to meet me the next day. He made me promise that I would call him in the morning and wake him up. I tried. Little did I know that his soul had already left his body."
Ledger's soulless body was discovered by his masseuse at around 2.45pm on Tuesday. Diana Wolozin had come to the actor's Soho apartment for a scheduled appointment and was let into the building by the housekeeper. When the actor did not answer her knock on his bedroom door, or answer his phone, Wolozin went into the room and discovered the tragic scene.



However, rather than calling emergency service, Wolozin used Ledger's mobile phone to call his close friend Mary-Kate Olsen.



Olsen and Ledger had previously been romantically linked, although both denied the reports. The 21-year-old actress told Wolozin she would call her security people and the masseuse notified the emergency services. When paramedics arrived Ledger was in full cardiac arrest, and despite their efforts to revive him with CPR he was declared dead at the scene.



Police have now revealed six prescription drugs were found surrounding Ledger's naked body, including Ambien, anxiety medication Valium, anti-depressant Zoloft, anxiety drug Xanax, highly addictive sleeping pill Zoplicone and antihistamine Donormyl.



A rolled up $20 bill was also found but police have revealed it tested negative for drug residue.
As Hollywood tries to understand this senseless loss, the true extent of Ledger's private hell is only beginning to be pieced together.



It seems the star never fully got over his split from Williams, and he sunk further and further into depression as he struggled to come to terms with losing his soul mate and being parted from his beloved daughter.



One source said: "He really wanted it to work but Michelle ended it and Heath was devastated. He blamed himself for Matilda not having her dad around all the time and he never seemed himself after that."



The actor was so besotted with Matilda he once chillingly remarked he was no longer afraid of death, because his legacy would live on in Matilda.



He said: "I feel good about dying now, you look at death differently.



"It's a Catch-22 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."



In the months leading up to his passing, close acquaintances, including his 'Brokeback Mountain' co-star Jake Gyllenhaal, pleaded with him to seek help as became more reclusive and reliant on prescription drugs to mask his growing unhappiness.



When told of the actor's death, Jack Nicholson revealed he had even warned the star about his spiralling addictions.



He said: "Heath's death is tragic news. I warned him about Ambien. I took it once and somebody called me in the middle of the night and I woke up in my car 50 yards from my house. I almost drove off a cliff. I didn't know where I was.



"Ambien can get you. Not through excessive use, it's just some people react more strongly than others."



What has emerged about Heath's final months is a picture of an emotionally drained and physically exhausted man who was holding on by a delicate thread.



And although we knew him in various guises on screen, it seems only a select few ever got close to the tortured actor and they have nothing but love in their heart for him.



As his father Kim explained in a tearful tribute: "Heath was down to earth, generous, kind hearted, life-loving, unselfish individual.



"He has touched so many people on so many different levels during his short life but few had the pleasure of truly knowing him."



Like River Phoenix and James Dean before him, Ledger had so much more to give to the world of film when his career was tragically cut short.



And like 23-year-old Phoenix and 24-year-old Dean he will live forever as a young and passionate man on celluloid.



To use the prophetic words Ledger eerily uttered just months before his death: "When I die, my money's not going come with me. My movies will live on for people to judge what I was like as a person.''





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