Heath Ledger was one of the most talented actors of his generation, and he was gone far too soon. Here, we delve into the secrets of his life—and his death.
1. He Was Tragic
Probably no modern actor is more deserving of comparisons to James Dean than Heath Ledger. From his brooding roles to his dark personal secrets and utterly tragic end, Ledger lived life with a burning intensity that flamed out far too fast. Yet as brightly as he shone, there are still enduring mysteries about the circumstances of his passing. Let’s start at the beginning.
2. He Did Anything For Acting
Growing up in Perth, Australia, Heath Ledger had to make far more sacrifices than people know for his dream. When he was just 16, he graduated school early and drove clear across Australia to live in Sydney and start work as an actor. For years, he played small parts in television dramas—but when his break came, it was the big one.
3. He Was A Teenage Heartthrob
In 1999, when he was just 20 years old, Ledger made a name for himself in an unforgettable movie. He starred in 10 Things I Hate About You, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, as the alluring and elusive Patrick opposite Julia Stiles’ uptight and wry Kat. The film rocketed him to fame in America…only, there are still one huge thing people don’t know about his time on set.
4. He Had A Secret Relationship
In 2009, on the 10th anniversary of 10 Things I Hate About You, the cast and crew from the movie made an accompanying commentary track. They made a huge revelation. Although most of the public never knew this, Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles actually dated while they were on set together, only breaking up in January of 2000.
Yet the film affected Ledger in other tumultuous ways.
5. His Big Break Almost Ruined His Career
It’s true that Heath Ledger was more famous than ever coming out of 10 Things I Hate About You—but this very prospect terrified him. He was specifically afraid of people typecasting him forever in heartthrob parts. In fact, he was so determined to avoid this, he refused the roles that came to him for a whole year because they were too similar.
But eventually, he’d found the one part that ended up defining his entire life.
6. He Became A Media Darling
In 2005, Ledger got the opportunity to work opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in Ang Lee’s cowboy romance Brokeback Mountain. The film opened up an entire world of award nominations for Ledger, and his performance as the tormented Ennis Del Mar is one of the best he ever gave. Yet it was behind the scenes where the real magic was happening.
7. He Fell In Love At First Sight
While Ledger was pretending to romance Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Brokeback Mountain, on set he was falling deep in love with someone else. Reportedly, the moment he saw Michelle Williams, who plays his wife in the film, he was totally in love. As Gyllenhaal himself noted, "I remember being in rehearsal, and the two of them had googly eyes with each other”.
And once the film started rolling, this all moved very quickly.
8. He Was In The Middle Of An On-Set Accident
Ledger and Williams had obviously been nursing sweet crushes for each other, but it was a violent moment on set that changed everything for them. In one scene, Williams’ character had to slide down a hill on a toboggan and fall off—but on the third take, she had an accident for real, seriously twisting her knee.
As she sat at the bottom of the hill crying, Ledger performed a heartwarming gesture.
9. He Was A True Romantic
Williams had hurt her knee so badly that she needed to go to a hospital. Upon hearing this, Ledger insisted on going with her and began loading her up into a vehicle. This is where sparks truly flew. As the film’s screenwriter recalled, Ledger kept smoothing Williams’ hair back, and “I remember him looking at her, and she looking up at him with these wide eyes”.
Before anyone on set could blink, they were an item—but that’s not all they were.
10. He Thought He Found His Soul Mate
When interviewers ask Williams, even today, about her time with Ledger, she asserts that "the circumstances of how we first met...were cosmic or something”. The pair truly felt that they were soulmates, and they spent an immense amount of time together in those first few months. Yet this intensity led to a very serious situation.
11. He Was A Young Father
The next year, Ledger and Williams made a momentous announcement: They were expecting a baby together. In late October 2005, they had a little girl they named Matilda, and both of them jumped right into the parenting life. If Williams was working, Ledger would take over childcare duties, and vice versa.
It should have been a time for the new parents to settle down. But that’s not what happened with Ledger.
12. He Was Hard On Himself
Throughout this time, Heath Ledger’s star kept on rising, but his new fame underlined disturbing tendencies in the actor. Ledger had always been a restless person, never wanting to act the same kind of part twice, yet never completely happy with the performances he did put out.
As he once put it, “I feel the same way about everything I do. The day I say, ‘It’s good’ is the day I should start doing something else". According to some reports, this led Ledger down a very dark path.
13. He Was "A Known User"
Given his tragic end, reports of Ledger’s personal life and substance use have been guarded. Nonetheless, several people reported that during this time, Ledger was “a known user,” and, restless person that he was, liked to spend many evenings out on the town. Yet this wasn’t the only way the actor misbehaved.
14. He Hated Paparazzi
Ledger’s nightlife habits may be hard to pin down, but his public actions were certainly suspect during this time. The actor had a particularly vicious relationship with Australian paparazzi, and even changed his mind about settling Michelle and Matilda in Sydney after feeling the press was hounding him everywhere he went.
One day though, according to reports, he took his animosity way too far.
15. Journalists Accused Him Of A Disgusting Act
Although Heath Ledger vehemently denied the altercation, in 2004 the press reported that he got mad and “spat at journalists on the Sydney set” of his upcoming film Candy. More than that, the press claimed that later on, when they were outside Ledger’s home, one of his family members pulled the exact same move.
Whatever the truth, there was no love lost between Ledger and the press—and it led to a petty revenge.
16. The Press Got Revenge On Him
In retaliation against this supposed spitting incident, the paparazzi got Ledger back in a cruel way. In January 2006, having not forgotten his alleged insult, members of the paparazzi squirted both Ledger and Michelle Williams with water guns while they were walking the red carpet at Brokeback Mountain’s Sydney premiere.
This was the ugly side of fame. Only, he had much worse coming.
17. He Was Christopher Nolan's First Choice
Sometime after Brokeback Mountain, Ledger had a meeting with acclaimed director Christopher Nolan. Why? Because Nolan insisted that Ledger was his “first and only” choice to play The Joker in his upcoming Batman movie, The Dark Knight. It was a dream come true, yes. It would also turn into a nightmare.
18. He Was Anxious On Set
In truth, Ledger may have taken his roles too seriously. While playing Robbie Clark in the mind-bending Bob Dylan “bio-pic” I'm Not There, Ledger said the film nearly did him in. He always tried so deeply to identify with his character that when it came to this Rubik’s cube of a movie, “I stressed out a little too much”.
Yet when he started work on The Dark Knight, playing the tormented and insane Joker, this tendency increased tenfold.
19. The Role Obsessed Him
Although there is a public perception that Ledger’s time as The Joker ruined him entirely, that’s not exactly the case. In actuality, Ledger loved working as The Joker, and even called the part his favorite role up until this point. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean his devotion to The Dark Knight was good for him in the long run.
In fact, this was when the wheels started to come off.
20. He Struggled At Night
While Ledger was filming The Dark Knight, a journalist from The New York Times visited him for an interview. What they found was deeply unsettling. Ledger confessed that, as always happened when he was in the middle of work, he was having huge difficulty sleeping. He admitted that in the past week he only got about “two hours a night”.
Michelle Williams later backed this up, saying, "For as long as I'd known him, he had bouts with insomnia. He had too much energy. His mind was turning, turning, turning—always turning". Yet it was Ledger’s response to this that was truly disturbing.
21. He Had Terrifying Habits
Because of Heath Ledger’s lifelong insomnia, he was comfortable—too comfortable—with taking sleeping pills. Only, the pills were no longer quite working for him. In the same interview, Ledger admitted that during a recent bout of insomnia, he took one Ambien and then, when it didn’t work on him, took a second. Again, it did almost nothing.
In the meantime, he was directing all this energy into The Joker, to terrifying effect.
22. He Locked Himself Away
As production ramped up on The Dark Knight, Ledger took his devotion to The Joker to extremes. For a month, he locked himself up in a hotel room. While there, he pored over the Batman comic books to get an idea of the character. He also meticulously worked on everything about the character, from his voice—a strange mix of high and low pitches inspired by ventriloquism—to The Joker’s erratic movements. Then he really went above and beyond.
23. He Put Everything Into The Joker
Once the cameras started rolling, Ledger did everything he could to stay present in the film. Although Batman fans were initially skeptical of his casting, Nolan believed in Ledger so much that he even allowed the actor to direct The Joker’s home videos in the film.
It was clear there was a kind of dark magic going on around Ledger in the part, and his cast mates began to notice.
24. He Stunned His Co-Workers
It's easy to say that Heath Ledger’s turn as The Joker is iconic only because of his premature, tragic end, but that’s simply not the truth. Even the legendary Michael Caine, who played the butler Alfred in the movies, was bowled over by Ledger’s acting. Caine confessed that at one point on set, he forgot his lines because of how “stunning” Ledger was. Yet still, Ledger went deeper.
25. He Scared Christian Bale
If you ever thought that infamous interrogation scene in The Dark Knight looked oddly realistic, it's because it was. Ledger asked Christian Bale to actually hit him. As Bale put it, “He was kinda egging me on. I was saying, ‘You know what, I really don’t need to actually hit you. It’s going to look just as good if I don’t.’ And he’s going, ‘Go on. Go on. Go on….’ He was slamming himself around”.
As Bale added, “His commitment was total”. But Ledger had to pay the piper sometime.
26. The Joker Wrecked Him
It’s no small task to act as (in Ledger's words) a "schizophrenic clown with zero empathy" day in and day out. Ledger was open about the stresses the part was putting on his life: Although he loved going to work every day, he confessed that “It was an exhausting process. At the end of the day, I couldn't move. I couldn't talk. I was absolutely wrecked”.
Is it any wonder his life started to break down?
27. He Went Through A Public Split
The Dark Knight filmed between April and November, 2007. Right in the middle of this, Ledger’s family dropped a shocker. That September, Michelle Williams’ father confirmed to The Daily Telegraph that the couple had broken up. Heath Ledger was in one of the most intense professional periods of his career, and now his personal life was up in flames. He didn't rebound in the best of ways.
28. He Went On The Rebound With Supermodels
In the months after the official split, the press began to see Ledger around with a bunch of different women, each of them more beautiful than the last. In particular, they linked him to supermodels Helena Christensen and fellow Aussie Gemma Ward. Ward later revealed that the pair even spent Christmas 2007 with their families back in Perth.
But if Ledger was moving on from Williams, other patterns still held him in their sway.
29. He Got Sick
Almost as soon as The Dark Knight wrapped filming, Ledger began work on Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus alongside Christopher Plummer. It was a prestigious project that catapulted his star even higher. But behind the scenes, it was getting grim. When Ledger came back from that Christmas away, he was complaining of some kind of chest infection, and his response was tragic.
30. He Ignored The Warning Signs
As always with Ledger, his brain was too busy to take care of his body. As Christopher Plummer recalled, even though Ledger’s illness kept getting worse, “I don’t think he dealt with it immediately with antibiotics”. Eventually, according to Plummer, it likely turned into pneumonia, and yet still Ledger put off dealing with it. That wasn’t all, though.
31. His Old Issues Haunted Him
Even as Ledger’s body was screaming for some TLC, Plummer reports that the actor was continuing to have trouble sleeping. He reported that Ledger would tell him all the time “Dammit, I can’t sleep” and that he “was taking all these pills to help him”. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but there’s no doubt Ledger’s cast mates were worried for him. Still, they had no idea what was coming.
32. His Employees Found Him
On January 22, 2008, it had been four months since Ledger and Williams announced their split. He was still in the middle of working on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, living solo in his Manhattan loft. One afternoon, his housekeeper and masseuse entered, and made a horrific discovery. Ledger was lying unresponsive on his bed—but then the situation turned bizarre.
33. An Olsen Twin Came Into The Picture
Heath Ledger’s massage therapist, Diana Wolozin, was certain something was deeply wrong, but she didn’t call an ambulance or the authorities, at least not at first. Instead, in a move that has puzzled fans for years, she decided to phone none other than Mary-Kate Olsen, who was a friend of Ledger’s.
Olsen wasn’t actually in New York at the time, and instead sent over her own private security guard to go to the apartment and somehow sort things out. It soon devolved into chaos.
34. They Tried To Save Him
Although Wolozin’s first call was to Mary-Kate, she did phone 9-1-1 immediately after hanging up the phone with the Olsen twin, informing the operator that “Mr Ledger was not breathing”. After talking more to the operator, the masseuse performed CPR to try to save Ledger’s life, but it was far too late.
When paramedics arrived—just as Mary-Kate Olsen’s security did—they pronounced him dead within three minutes. Heath Ledger’s fate was tragically sealed…but huge questions lingered.
35. His Autopsy Revealed A Horrible Truth
In the wake of Ledger’s passing, authorities scrambled to find out the cause. The autopsy revealed heartbreaking results. They found a huge number of medications in his system, all of them used to treat common ailments like insomnia, anxiety, and colds. Yet taken all together, they produced a fatal cocktail, especially given his ongoing chest congestion.
Ledger had accidentally overdosed, and Michelle Williams was left with the cruel aftermath.
36. He Crushed The Love Of His Life
When Williams heard the news of her ex-partner’s passing, she broke down. Cruelly, she was in her final weeks of filming for the movie Mammoth, and then had to go right to work on Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. As she said of that filming experience, “I don’t remember most of it. I’ve got a lot of holes”. But there were other tragic complications besides grief.
37. He Forgot About His Daughter
Obviously, Heath Ledger never thought he would die at only 28 years old. As a result, his last will and testament didn’t provide for his daughter Matilda; he wrote it before she was born. In the breathless months following his passing, multiple reports came out about relatives trying to wrangle Ledger's money for themselves—until his father shut them all up.
In a tearjerking statement, Kim Ledger insisted that there was no way they would take Ledger’s $16 million fortune, even if they had a legal right. As he put it: "There is no claim. Our family has gifted everything to Matilda”. And the tears kept coming.
38. His Family Mourned
The months after Heath Ledger died were a whirlwind for everyone involved. Thousands of fans mourned him, leaving flowers outside his New York apartment building, and his family buried him back in his hometown of Perth in an extremely small and extremely private ceremony. After that, there might have been a moment of quiet...but then everything got turned upside down again.
39. He Got An Academy Award
The anniversary after Heath Ledger’s passing was bittersweet. He had been gone for a year, yes. But on that day, the Academy also officially nominated him for an award for his role in The Dark Knight. Then, when the Oscars rolled around, Ledger won the statue, making him only the second person to win an acting Oscar posthumously.
It was closure, of a kind—only, there were still details to his passing that left a sour taste in people’s mouths.
40. He Had A Surprising Affair
Surprisingly, Lindsay Lohan and Heath Ledger allegedly had a close bond—though this only came out after his passing. The details are blurry, but her diary reveals she was in love with Ledger around the time of his tragic demise. On the day he passed, Lohan wrote about how he was the love of her life, and how he taught her so much.
Reportedly, they had been seeing each other around this time, and when Lohan's infamous document of intimate partners was leaked in 2014, Heath Ledger was on the list.
41. He Gave Everything To The Joker
After his passing, there was a surge of fabricated stories about Heath Ledger, including one that stated he designed his makeup for The Dark Knight. Although this is not the case, he was an active part of the design process. For example, when the makeup artists were putting on his makeup, Ledger would contort his face into clownish expressions, letting the makeup crease and creating the impression that it had been caked on for days.
42. He Had A Trendy Idea
One of Ledger’s most famous “hidden” talents was his obsession with chess, and he would often go down to Washington Square Park to play with other chess fanatics. There was another side to this, too: One of his dreams was actually to make an adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1983 chess novel The Queen's Gambit, which has since become a successful mini-series.
43. The Authorities Had A Suspect
Since that fateful January, people have speculated about what Mary-Kate Olsen had to do with Ledger’s passing, and why exactly his masseuse called her before paramedics. The authorities thought they knew the chilling answer. For a while, they worked on a theory that it was Olsen who had supplied Ledger with the substances that took his life. But then the plot thickened.
44. Mary-Kate Olsen May Know Something About His Death
Whatever Mary-Kate Olsen does or doesn't know about Ledger, she was completely quiet about it. In the days following his passing, Olsen refused to talk to investigators unless they gave her immunity. Meanwhile, her representative released a statement denying her knowledge of the origin of the substances as well as her involvement in his passing.
With nowhere else to turn, the authorities looked in a different direction.
45. They Never Found Who Killed Him
Once Heath Ledger’s autopsy came out, no one could believe that any doctor would have prescribed him all those powerful medications together. As a result, the DEA investigated two of Ledger’s physicians to see what they had actually prescribed him—yet still, they got no answers.
The doctors hadn’t prescribed Ledger the medications that killed him, and the DEA quickly exonerated them. To this day, no one knows how Ledger obtained the fatal medical cocktail. But there’s one more mystery.
46. His Breakup May Have Been Bitter
Another constant question surrounding Ledger is why his partnership with Michelle Williams broke up, right when he was taking on The Joker. One of the suggested answers is dark. According to some whispers, Heath Ledger's frequent partying after the birth of his daughter Matilda upset Williams, and she kicked him out of the house for his using.
Even so, Michelle Williams’ best friend has another perspective on their split.
47. His Relationship Was "Complicated"
Williams worked with actress Busy Philipps on Dawson’s Creek, and the pair became fast and lifelong friends from there. Because of this, Philipps has a unique perspective on both their relationship and their breakup—which she revealed in her recent memoir This Will Only Hurt A Little.
In the book, Philipps calls Ledger and Williams’ relationship “complicated". She also shared that by the time she was getting married in June of 2007, just months after The Dark Knight began filming, Williams and Ledger were already “in the process of separating," though they only announced it in September. But then Philipps throws in a surprise.
48. Everyone Thought They'd Get Back Together
Phillips also reveals why they split: As she put it, “They were so young and that baby was the light of both of their lives. They were just working all the time”. Moreover, because of this, Philipps wrote that at the time she believed “it wasn’t the end of the story for them". She felt that Williams and Heath Ledger would have gotten back together at some point, if only they'd had the chance.
49. He Wrote A Chilling Diary Entry
There is a lot of lore surrounding Heath Ledger’s work as The Joker, but one of the confirmed stories is also the most disturbing. To get into character, Ledger wrote a diary from the perspective of The Joker. Within the pages, he finds humor in geniuses who become mentally handicapped, among other horrific things.
The journal also contained stills from Stanley Kubrick's eerie thriller A Clockwork Orange, photos of clown makeup, and pictures of hyenas. Then, on the last page of the chilling “Joker diary," he scrawled the words “BYE BYE”.
50. He Had A Wholesome Inspiration
Heath Ledger actually loved to dance. Gene Kelly, the famous actor, singer, and tap dancer who starred in musicals during the 1940s and 50s, was one of his idols. While he never starred in a musical, Ledger shows off some of his moves in A Knight’s Tale, and even has a little number in 10 Things I Hate About You.