“I never had money, and I was very happy without it. When I die, my money’s not gonna come with me. My movies will live on for people to judge what I was as a person. I just want to stay curious.” —Heath Ledger.
Heath Ledger left an astonishing body of work in his tragically short life. Sadly, Ledger died of accidental intoxication on January 22, 2008. We still miss him dearly. Here are 45 facts that you may not have known about Heath Ledger.
45. Cold as Ice
When he was 11 years old, Ledger played field hockey for the Kalamunda Hockey Club. He was so serious about hockey that from 1990 to 1992, his own dad became the president of the club. People even thought he might have a chance as a professional field hockey player—but he ultimately chose acting.
44. Oi, Oi, Oi
Ledger was born in Perth, Australia. Some of his first films were shot there, for example Clowning Around, which was his debut film. He had a small part playing an orphan clown. Eerily though, this means that his first and last completed film roles were playing clowns.
While he was born in Australia, Ledger’s family heritage is actually a mix of Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Sephardi, and even a sprinkle of Judaism.
42. This Is How Stereotypes Are Made
In case you doubt his Australian heritage: when he was a child, his mother found a Kangaroo and, taking pity on the poor creature, she decided to give it to her son to raise as a pet.
41. No Boys Allowed
Growing up, Heath was the only son in the family. He was particularly close with his elder sister Kate, who was an actress and sparked his love of acting. His parents divorced when he was 11, and he also has two half-sisters, Ashleigh and Olivia, from their other marriages.
40. Heathcliff, It’s Me, Cathy
Heath’s mom, Sally, was a French teacher, and she loved to read classic literature. In fact, she named her first two children Kate and Heath after the dark, disturbed couple in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Catherine and Heathcliff.
39. Lying in Wait
Ledger’s most iconic role is certainly his take on the classic Batman villain The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. His co-stars in the film often mention his remarkable restraint. He would never do the Joker voice or laugh like the villain unless the cameras were rolling, keeping his truly disturbing behavior locked in until the right moment.
38. Smile for the Camera
The distinctive wounds on The Joker’s face in The Dark Knight actually have a specific name: they are called a “Glasgow Smile.”
Ledger was something of a Renaissance man, and his interests didn’t just stop at playing field hockey and acting. He was also an avid chess fan, and played in many tournaments from a young age. As an adult, you could even sometimes find him playing chess in Washington Square Park in New York City.
36. I Believe in Fairies
When he was only 13 years old, Ledger starred in his first role as Peter Pan in a local school production in Perth. Everybody’s gotta start somewhere, right?
35. Decisions, Decisions
He went to a private academy called Guildford Grammar, and there wasn’t enough time to participate in both sports and drama club after school. He chose drama.
34. Book Smrt
Heath was eager to get out of High School and pursue his acting career as soon as possible. When was was 17, he sat in for the exams that would give him a diploma. When the scores came back high enough, he left school for good and started acting. It was a brave move: aside from school plays, Ledger was never classically trained as an actor.
33. Singin’ in the Rain
Ledger actually loved to dance. He was inspired by Gene Kelly, the famous actor, singer, and tap dancer who starred in musicals during the 1940s and 50s. While he never starred in a musical, Ledger shows off some of his moves in the 2001 film A Knight’s Tale, and even has a little number in 10 Things I Hate About You.
32. His Favorite
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ledger admitted that the film role he was most proud of was playing The Joker in The Dark Knight.
31. Almost Spider Man
By 2002, Ledger was famous enough to be offered the role of Peter Parker in Spider Man. In move that would still probably shock people today, especially with the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he turned the role down.
30. Leave Ledger Alone!
Ledger admitted to being an introvert, and was painfully shy around new people. He explained that while he could pretend to be outgoing while acting, he had a hard time when just being himself.
29. Matilda, I Am Your Father
Over the course of his life, Ledger was romantically linked to a bevy of beautiful actresses, including Naomi Watts, Heather Graham, and even his 10 Things I Hate About You co-star Julia Stiles. But it was with another co-star, Michelle Williams, that he had one of his most important relationships. They met on the set of Brokeback Mountain, and lived together until 2007. In 2005, they also had a child together, Matilda Rose Ledger.
28. Love Hurts
By 2007, however, Williams and Ledger had ended their relationship. At the time, the media reported that Williams had asked Ledger to leave their New York City apartment because of his drug use. Whether this is true or not, it does fit into the dark pattern that would emerge.
27. Always Improving
When asked which role of his he liked the least, Ledger admitted that he was most disappointed in himself with his portrayal of the famous lover Casanova in the 2005 film of the same name.
During an interview, Ledger was asked if he felt nervous or uncomfortable playing the role of a homosexual for Brokeback Mountain. He replied that the only thing that bothered him was that he wished he was a more mature actor, because he was afraid he would not do the story of Ennis Del Mar justice.
25. The Scholarship
After his death, the Australians in Film society created a scholarship in Heath Ledger’s name. It is awarded to promising young Australian actors living in the United States in order to help their careers. Ledger’s father donates money to the scholarship every year.
24. Real Deal
Before filming Brokeback Mountain, the producers wanted Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal to attend a cowboy training camp. Ledger told them that he didn’t need it: Since he grew up in Australia, he already had the skills of a cowboy.
23. Superhero Bias
When Christopher Nolan was casting Batman Begins, he was in talks with Ledger to get him to play the role of Bruce Wayne and therefore Batman. Maybe Ledger had a thing against superheroes; as with Spider Man, he turned the part down. But when Ledger saw the final product, he immediately regretted it, and chased down Nolan to sign on for the part of The Joker in The Dark Knight.
22. Method Man
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 … His commitment was total.”
21. Scaredy Caine
Michael Caine, who played Alfred in The Dark Knight, was terrified when he saw Ledger in the Joker makeup for the first time. During a rehearsal for the film, Ledger walked out of the elevator to wreak havoc on the party scene, and Caine was so distressed to see him like that, he promptly forgot his lines.
20. I’m the Joker, Mate
Ledger’s Joker set a lot of high bars for the Batman franchises. He was the first non-American actor to play the character, the youngest actor at the time to don the white makeup, and, of course, the role also made him the first person to win a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
19. They’re Not Going to Take It Anymore
Ledger was also only the second person in history, period, to receive an Oscar after his death. Peter Finch, who died in 1977, was the first. Finch won for the film Network, in which he gives a memorable, crazed rant as anchorman Howard Beale.
18. Makeover, Makeover
After his death, there was a surge of fabricated stories about Ledger, including one that stated he designed his makeup for The Joker. 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.
17. Hanging out
Although Ledger was very devoted to the role of The Joker in The Dark Knight, people on set also revealed how kind and heartwarming he was to cast and crew. John Caglione Jr., the man behind The Joker’s iconic makeup, said that Ledger would joke and smoke cigarettes between takes, and would often skateboard around the shooting location.
16. Winging It
During the filming of The Dark Knight, Ledger would go off-script if he thought it was something The Joker would really do. This led to some of the film’s most iconic moments, including when The Joker is sitting in a cell and slowly claps, with a menacing smile, at Commissioner Gordon’s promotion. Likewise, the moment where the bomb doesn’t go off and The Joker mumbles to himself before making it detonate was totally improvised; this was actually just a pyrotechnic error that Ledger worked with to produce a hilarious, character-defining moment.
15. Going Stir Crazy
Ledger was known for his almost dangerous commitment to his roles. Probably the most famous, and darkest, example of his dedication came with his work in The Dark Knight. In order to get a sense of what it’s like to be insane like The Joker, Ledger locked himself in a hotel room for weeks on end.
14. Mad Heath
Since the original Mad Max was an Australian movie starring Mel Gibson, the producers of the 2015 remake had been considering their new star for a very long time. They wanted to cast Ledger, since he was also Australian, and obviously a great actor. Of course, Tom Hardy eventually took on the role years after Ledger’s tragic passing.
Since he was shy, it was thought that Ledger secretly liked being behind the camera more than he liked being in front of it. One of his hobbies was making home movies, and he would usually carry a video camera around.
In the documentary I Am Heath Ledger, one of his close friends commented that for Ledger, acting was just a means to get into directing. He worked on a few music videos, but his dream was to direct the movie adaptation of the novel The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis.
12. Warning Signs
Before Ledger’s tragic death on January 22, 2008, there were a few devastating warning signs. Ledger had always had trouble sleeping and struggled with bouts of insomnia, but it was particularly bad just before his death, and he began regularly taking sleeping pills.
11. Working Overtime
Ledger’s co-star on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Christopher Plummer, also noted that Ledger was having other health problems just before his death, and driving himself into the ground. As he said, “we all caught colds because we were shooting outside on horrible, damp nights. But Heath’s went on and I don’t think he dealt with it immediately with the antibiotics.”
10. Not Making Too Much of It
In an interview with The New York Times just a couple of months before his death, Ledger told journalist Sarah Lyall that his recently-completed roles in I’m Not There and The Dark Knight were wearing on him and giving him insomnia. As 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.”
In a chillingly prophetic passage, he admits in the interview to recently taking two Ambien pills because just one wouldn’t let him sleep.
9. Sudden Death
At 3:00 in the afternoon January 22, 2008, Heath Ledger’s body was found by his housekeeper, Teresa Solomon, and his masseuse, Diana Wolozin, inside his Manhattan apartment. He was lying unresponsive in his bed, and the attempts Wolozin made to perform CPR on the actor proved unsuccessful. He was pronounced dead on the scene at 3:36 pm.
8. Dial an Olsen
Curiously, when Wolozin found Ledger’s lifeless body, the first person she called was none other than child star Mary-Kate Olsen. As strange as this sounds, Olsen was a close friend of Ledger’s—and in fact, there was some speculation that she supplied the actor with the drugs that would eventually kill him. Even so, Olsen refused to talk to investigators unless she was given immunity, and her representative released a statement denying her knowledge of the origin of the drugs as well as her involvement in the death.
7. Troubled Souls
Surprisingly, Lindsay Lohan and Heath Ledger allegedly had a close bond. The details are blurry, but her diary reveals she was in love with Ledger around the time of his tragic death. On the day he died, Lohan wrote about how he was the love of her life, and how he taught her so much. She goes on to explain that he’s all she’s ever wanted and that she wants to hear him laugh and for him hold her. Lohan’s mother, Dina Lohan, claims 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.
6. Family First
It’s clear that Ledger never thought he would die at only 29 years old. He never wrote his daughter, Matilda, into his last will and testament; it was written before she was born. However, Ledger’s family gave Matilda his $16.3 million fortune anyway, saying, “There is no claim. Our family has gifted everything to Matilda.”
5. Calling Cut
Ledger’s death also cut short his role in a film he had been working on, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. In the film, the last line he says is, “Don’t shoot the messenger,” which he improvised himself.
4. It’s All for You
If you go back and watch The Dark Knight carefully, you can actually see a heartbreaking tribute Ledger left for his daughter. When The Joker is disguised as a nurse in the hospital, look at his name tag closely: it says “Matilda,” his daughter’s name.
3. Consummate Professional
When Ledger tragically died, his ex-partner (and the mother of his child) Michelle Williams was busy filming the movie Mammoth in Sweden. The rest of filming, according to Williams, was “horrible,” and she admitted that she couldn’t even “remember most of it.”
2. Home for a Rest
When Ledger died, he was cremated, and his ashes were returned back to Perth, Australia. They were scattered across his family plot, where his grandparents are buried, in Karrakatta Cemetery.
1. The Diary
One of the ways Ledger got into character was by putting together a scrapbook filled with inspiration for The Joker, which he made in part during his time isolated in the hotel room. The contents of this journal have been much discussed in the media—but they truly are disturbing. In its pages, Ledger wrote from the perspective of The Joker, who 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. On the last page of the chilling “Joker diary,” he scrawled the words “BYE BYE.”
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