Heath Ledger left the world heartbroken when his life was cut tragically short in 2008. The talented Australian heartthrob made girls all over the nation swoon with his breakout role in 10 Things I Hate About You. The movie has since become a classic rom-com. Despite his talent and good looks, Ledger had kind of a dark mind.
The actor was known for method acting and even kept himself isolated for weeks on end in preparation for the Joker, his most iconic role and, tragically, his last one. It’s hard to believe it’s been over a decade since we lost the actor. His daughter Matilda is now a teenager and is the spitting image of her father.
From his extreme method of acting, roles he turned down, and his devastated family, this is the life and untimely death of Heath Ledger.
An Australian Boy
Ledger was born in Perth, Australia, but his family heritage is a mix of Scottish, Welsh, Irish, and Jewish. In his debut film, Clowning Around, shot in Australia, Ledger played an orphan clown. Little did he know he would go on to play one of the most iconic clowns in cinema.
When he was just 11 years old, Heath Ledger played field hockey for the Kalamunda Hockey Club. He was so serious about the sport that his own dad became the president of the club from 1990 to 1992. People thought he would grow up to be a professional hockey player, but he chose acting instead.
An Only Son
In case you’re skeptical about his Australian heritage, when he was a little kid, his mom found a kangaroo and felt bad for the poor animal. So, she decided to give it to Heath to raise as a pet. I guess it’s the equivalent of finding a stray dog or cat in America.
Heath was the only son in the family growing up. He had a particularly close relationship with his big sister Kate, who was also an actress and sparked his interest in performing. When he was 11, his parents got divorced, and he got a half-sister from each of his parents’ other marriages: Ashleigh and Olivia.
Heath’s mother, Sally, was a French teacher and absolutely loved to read classic literature. In fact, she named her two eldest kids, Kate and Heath, after the couple in Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights: Catherine and Heathcliff.
Heath Ledger was a lot of things, and a Renaissance man is certainly one of them. Sure, he was interested in hockey and acting, but he was also an avid chess fan. He was pretty good and played in tournaments since he was a kid. As an adult, he was spotted playing chess a few times in Washington Square Park in New York City.
The Glasgow Smile
Ledger’s most iconic role is one he unfortunately never got to see: the Joker, the classic Batman villain in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. His co-stars in the movie often speak about his remarkable restraint. He never did the Joker’s voice or laughed like the villain unless the cameras were rolling. He kept the disturbing yet remarkable behavior for the performance.
The distinctive wounds in the Joker’s face that create his villainous smile have a name: They are known as a “Glasgow Smile.” It’s caused by a wound from the corners of the mouth up to the ears.
To Act, or Not to Act?
At the ripe age of 13, Ledger got his first acting role. He starred as Peter Pan in his school production in Perth. He landed the starring role there, so it’s no surprise where he ended up. But we all gotta start somewhere, right?
Heath Ledger attended a private academy called Guildford Grammar. Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to participate in sports and in drama club after school, so he had to make a tough decision. Needless to say, he went with drama. Obviously, he made the right choice.
Scholarship for Young Australian Talents
Ledger was excited to finish high school and pursue his acting career as soon as possible. When he was 17, he took the exams for his diploma. After graduating, he left high school and focused on acting. It was a brave move because other than school plays, Ledger didn’t really have training as an actor.
After his tragic death, the Australians in Film Society created a scholarship in honor of Heath Ledger. It is awarded to promising young Australian actors living in America to help them expand their careers. Every single year, Ledger’s father donates money to the scholarship.
A Dancer at Heart
One of the things you may not know about Heath Ledger is that he loved to dance. When he was a teenager, the talented future actor choreographed a 60-person routine for a nationwide high school competition… and he won!
He was actually inspired by Gene Kelly, the acclaimed actor, singer, and tap dancer, who was featured in musicals throughout the 1940s and ‘50s. While Heath never starred in a musical, he showed off his moves in the 2001 movie A Knight’s Tale. He even had a memorable little number in 10 Things I Hate About You.
When 2002 rolled around, Ledger was offered the incredible role of Peter Parker in Spider-Man. In a shocking move, especially with the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe now, Ledger turned down the role.
Apparently, the reason he declined such an iconic part was that he didn’t want to be typecast as a superhero. He was a very diverse actor and worried that being Spider-Man might impact the direction of his career. The role of Peter Parker ultimately went to Tobey McGuire.
Leave Ledger Alone!
He seemed like an outgoing type of guy, but Ledger admitted to being an introvert who was incredibly shy around new people. He explained that while he was acting, he had no problem pretending to be outgoing. It was just more difficult for him when he was being himself.
One of the things Heath Ledger was known for was his almost dangerous commitment to his roles. One of the darkest and most famous examples of his amazing dedication came with his work in The Dark Knight. In order to get a sense of what it would be like to be as insane as the Joker, the actor locked himself in a hotel room for weeks on end. That’s certainly enough to make a person go crazy.
His Baby Mama
Over the course of his life and career, Heath Ledger was linked to a string of stunning actresses, such as Naomi Watts, Heather Graham, and even Julia Stiles, his 10 Things I Hate About You co-star. But one of the most significant relationships he had was with another co-star, Michelle Williams.
The two met on the set of Brokeback Mountain, and the happy couple lived together up until 2007. In 2005, they welcomed a baby into the world, Matilda Rose Ledger. But by 2007, the marriage crumbled. At the time, it was reported that Williams asked Ledger to leave their apartment because of his drug use. We can’t confirm or deny the rumors. However, it does fit into the dark pattern that would emerge.
When Ledger was asked which role he disliked the most, the actor admitted that he was disappointed when he watched his portrayal of the famous lover Casanova in the 2005 film Casanova.
Ledger was once asked in an interview if he felt at all nervous or uncomfortable playing the role of a homosexual in Brokeback Mountain. His response was that the only thing that bothered him was that he wished he was a more mature and experienced actor. He was worried he wouldn’t do the story of Ennis Del Mar justice.
An Australian Cowboy
Before shooting Brokeback Mountain, the producers wanted actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal to go through cowboy training camp. Ledger told them he didn’t need it. Since he grew up in Australia, he already had cowboy skills.
As you might already know, the original Mad Max was an Australian movie starring Mel Gibson. So, when it came to the 2015 remake, the producers had been considering their new star for a very long time. Since Ledger was also Australian and obviously a great actor, the producers wanted to cast him. Years after his tragic passing, Tom Hardy took on the role.
When Christopher Nolan was casting the highly anticipated Batman Begins, he was talking to Heath Ledger about taking on the role of Bruce Wayne, AKA the lead role of Batman. But maybe Ledger had a thing against superheroes because, just like Spider-Man, he turned down the part. The role ultimately went to Christian Bale.
But when Ledger saw the final product, he immediately regretted his decision. He chased down Nolan just to be a contender for the role of the Joker in The Dark Knight, and as we know, he had a brilliant performance.
A True Method Actor
If you ever felt that the infamous interrogation scene in The Dark Knight looked strangely realistic, that’s because it was. Ledger asked Christian Bale to literally hit him. Bale said, “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.”
As you probably already know, Ledger was a method actor. He went as realistic as possible to truly get into character. Even though Bale didn’t actually have to hit him, Ledger felt that it would help his performance.
He Loved Playing a Villain
To nobody’s surprise, Ledger admitted that the movie part he was most proud of playing was the role of the Joker in The Dark Knight. This makes it even more devastating that he never got the chance to watch it.
Michael Caine, who portrayed Alfred in The Dark Knight, was terrified the first time he saw Ledger wearing the Joker makeup. During rehearsal for the movie, Ledger walked out of the elevator to wreak havoc on the party scene, and Caine was so petrified seeing him like that, he promptly forgot his lines.
The Perfect Evil Clown
After Jack Nicholson set the bar extremely high with his role as the Joker, nobody wanted to compete. That was until Heath Ledger entered the Batman franchise as the first non-American actor to play the villain (and youngest at the time); he vowed to do the part justice. And he did.
When it was his time to don the white makeup, he truly showed the world his acting chops. While many people focused on his good looks, he had incredible talent as well. His remarkable performance also made him the first person to win a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
His Talent and Devotion
Not only was Heath Ledger the first person to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar after his death, but he was also the second person in history to ever receive an Oscar after passing away. The first was Peter Finch, who died in 1977. He won an Oscar for the movie Networked where he gave a memorable, crazy rant as anchorman Howard Beale.
Although Ledger was extremely devoted to the role of the Joker in The Dark Knight, people on set revealed how kind and heartwarming he always was toward to cast and crew. John Caglione Jr., the man behind the Joker’s amazing makeup, said that between takes, Ledger would joke around and smoke cigarettes. He loved to skateboard around the shooting location.
His Joker Makeover
After his death, there was an eruption of fabricated stories about the actor. One of the rumors alleged the actor designed the makeup for the Joker himself. As it turns out, this rumor is not true. Believe it or not, makeup was not really his thing. However, he was actively involved in the design process.
For example, when the makeup artists were painting his makeup on, Ledger would actually make faces into clownish expressions letting the makeup crease creating the illusion that it had been caked onto his face for days.
While filming The Dark Knight, Heath would often go off-script if he felt it was something the Joker would really do. This led to some of the most iconic moments of the film, including that scene when the Joker is sitting in a cell, slowly clapping with an evil smile at Commissioner Gordon’s promotion.
Another time was the moment when the bomb fails to go off, and the Joker mumbles to himself before making it explode… well, that was totally improvised. It was just a pyrotechnic error that the actor worked with to create this hilarious character-defining moment.
Lights, Camera… Action!
Since he was naturally shy, people believed he secretly liked working behind the camera more than being the guy in front of it. One of his many hobbies was making home movies, and he would regularly carry a camera around.
In the documentary, I Am Heath Ledger, one of his close friends mentioned that Heath only pursued acting to open the doors for directing. He worked on a few music videos, but he really wanted to break into directing movies. His dream was to direct the movie adaptation of Walter Tevis’s The Queen’s Gambit.
Before Ledger’s tragic and untimely passing on January 22, 2008, there were a few horrifying warning signs. The actor always had trouble sleeping and dealt with bouts of insomnia. But his sleeping patterns got progressively worse shortly before his death, and he started taking sleeping pills.
Christopher Plummer, his co-star in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, mentioned that Ledger was having other health problems around that time and was driving himself into the ground. He explained, “We all got 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.”
Sleeping Problems Intensified
Just a couple of months before he passed away, Heath Ledger did an interview with The New York Times. The actor told journalist Sarah Lyall that his recent roles in the movies I’m Not There and The Dark Knight were affecting him and giving him insomnia.
In his own words: “Last week I probably slept an average of 2 hours a night… I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.” It’s a chillingly prophetic thing to say. During that interview, he confessed to taking two Ambien pills because just one wasn’t enough to make him fall asleep.
Sudden, Tragic Death
January 22, 2008 was a heartbreaking day. At 3:00 in the afternoon, Heath Ledger’s housekeeper, Teresa Solomon, and his masseuse, Diana Wolozin, found the actor’s body inside his Manhattan apartment. Unfortunately, it was too late.
He was lying unresponsive in his bed, and Wolozin attempted CPR to save the actor, but it proved unsuccessful. Heath Ledger was pronounced dead at the scene at 3:36 p.m. He left a hole in the hearts of his family, Hollywood, and millions of fans all around the world.
Calling Mary-Kate Olsen
There was something a little mysterious going on, though. Curiously, after Wolozin found the actor’s lifeless body, the first person she called (before the police) was none other than Mary Kate Olsen. Random, I know. But apparently, Mary-Kate was a close friend of his. In fact, it’s been speculated that she provided Ledger with the drugs that ultimately killed him.
However, Olsen refused to speak to investigators unless she was given immunity. Her representative also released a statement denying Mary-Kate’s knowledge of where the drugs came from as well as her involvement in his devastating death.
Another one of Heath Ledger’s surprising friends is actress Lindsay Lohan. Reportedly, the pair had a really close bond. Although the details are kind of blurry, her diary reveals that she was in love with Ledger around the time of his passing. On the day he died, Lohan wrote about how much he taught her and that he was the love of her life.
She went on to explain that all she ever wanted and all she still wants is to hear him laugh and wrap his arms around her. Lohan’s mother, Dina, said her daughter was seeing Ledger at the time. Plus, in 2014, when Lohan’s infamous list of partners was leaked, Heath Leger was on it.
His Pride and Joy Gets It all
Nobody thinks they are going to die young, and Heath Ledger definitely didn’t think he wouldn’t make it to 30. But when he died at 29, his daughter Matilda wasn’t in his will and testament because it was written before she was born.
However, Ledger’s family knew he loved his daughter with all his soul and would have written her into his will if he knew he was going to die. So, they decided to give Matilda her father’s $16.3 million fortune anyway, saying, “There is no claim. Our family gifted everything to Matilda.”
A Tribute to His Baby
If you watch The Dark Knight and pay very close attention, you can see the heartbreaking tribute Heath Ledger left for his daughter. When the Joker was dressed as a nurse in the hospital, look closely at his name tag. It says his daughter’s name, Matilda.
Ledger’s untimely death happened while he was working on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Sadly, he never finished the role. But the last line he spoke in the movie was “don’t shoot the messenger,” which he improvised.
Rest in Peace
When Ledger passed away, Michelle Williams, his ex-partner and mother of his child was busy in Sweden filming the movie Mammoth. According to the actress, the rest of the filming was “horrible,” as you probably could have guessed. She admitted that it was so bad, she couldn’t even “remember most of it.”
After Heath Ledger died, the actor was cremated, and his ashes were sent back to Perth, Australia. They were scattered across his family plot, right where his grandparents are buried, in Karrakatta Cemetery.
The Chilling Diary
One of the ways Ledger got into character to play the infamous villain was by putting together a scrapbook filled with inspiration for the Joker, which he worked on during his time isolated in the hotel room. The media discussed the contents in the journal – but they are honestly disturbing.
In the scrapbook, Ledger wrote passages from the perspective of the Joker, who finds humor in geniuses who become mentally handicapped, among other terrible things. The journal also included stills from Stanley Kubrick’s chilling thriller A Clockwork Orange, pictures of hyenas, and photos of clown makeup. On the last page of this eerie Joker diary, he scribbled the words “BYE BYE.”
Keith Ledger RIP
Heath Ledger passed away on January 22, 2008, and on January 23 of that year, he was the #2 most searched person on the internet. According to Google, ten out of the 20 most popular search words had to do with Heath, including his former partner Michelle Williams and their daughter Matilda.
People also looked up his apartment address and his most popular movies: 10 Things I Hate About You and Brokeback Mountain. As it turns out, Americans didn’t know how to spell his name, and the second most popular search string was “Keith Ledger.”
Ledger won his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The Dark Knight and became the second actor in history to ever win a posthumous Oscar for actor/supporting actor Award, after Peter Finch (winning best actor for Network, 1976), but he broke other records with that Oscar. Even though it was after his death, Heath Ledger was the first actor to ever win an Academy Award for portraying a character in a superhero movie.
At the 81st Academy Awards ceremony, The Dark Knight has nominated for eight Academy Awards. Heath Ledger won the Best Supporting Actor award for his performance as the Joker. His win was the first win for a superhero-based film in any of the major Oscar categories of producing, directing, acting, or writing.
The Joker Loves Blind Babies
We mentioned the Joker diary that Heath Ledger kept while he was in self-isolation, preparing to play the iconic villain. In it was a list of things the actor thought the Joker would find funny, including geniuses with brain damage, blind babies, AIDS, seriously injured doctors, and sombreros.
The diary must have helped him switch to the Joker persona and allowed him to absorb the psychological aspects of the character, but it got dark real quick. The actor certainly had a knack for diving deep into his characters, but the diary took it a bit further.
Raising Awareness With Modest Mouse
Heath Ledger started working on a music video for “King Rat” by the indie rock band Modest Mouse before his early death in 2008. After he passed, co-director Daniel Auber and a few others completed it. The full video came out on August 4, 2009.
The actor really enjoyed directing and was dabbling in music videos for a while. With that specific video, Ledger was hoping to raise awareness of the illegal commercial whale hunts taking place off the shores of Australia by reversing the roles of the parties involved.
Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell Gave Their Salaries to Matilda
As we know, Ledger died before he finished filming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. His co-stars Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, gave their salaries from the movie to Matilda Ledger, who was just two years old at the time of his father’s death.
His co-stars were concerned for his toddler’s future because Ledger hadn’t updated his will after she was born. Thankfully, his family knew what he wanted and gave her every bit of his inheritance. However, some extra cash on the side wouldn’t hurt her. It truly was a heartwarming gesture.
If I Were Gay, I’d Sleep With Him
When Ledger decided to move his TV/stage acting career to the bright lights of Hollywood, he pretty much turned down every role he was offered. When he auditioned for 10 Things I Hate About You, he was down to $150 and took it. But for director Gil Junger, casting Ledger was an easy choice:
“Heath walked in, and I thought to myself, ‘If this guy could read, I’m going to cast him.’ There was an energy to him, a sexuality that was palpable.” The director went on to say that despite being a straight male, “if I had to sleep with a man, that would be the man.”
When Life Imitates Art
Ledger has dated many beautiful Hollywood starlets, from Heather Graham to Naomi Watts. But he fell for his co-star on 10 Things I Hate About you. Julia Stiles played Kat in the iconic chick-flick, and the on-screen couple quickly started dating in real life.
Unfortunately, when filming ended, so did their romance. They pretty much lost contact after the movie wrapped. In 2016, Stiles recalled finding a note that Ledger had left her: “I forget the beginning of the quote, but it’s like, ‘Dance like you’ve never heard music and love like you’ve never been hurt,’ it was so sweet. I almost cried. That was his goodbye note to me.”
No Dubbing Necessary
Dubbing over vocals is not uncommon in movies. I mean, not every actor is a singer, so it only makes sense. Some famous examples include 1964’s My Fair Lady, where Audrey Hepburn was dubbed by Marni Nixon, and in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, Betty Noyes sang for Debbie Reynolds.
There are other modern-day examples but not for Ledger. The method actor rejected any form of lip-synching and sang his own songs. Remember the memorable scene where he serenades Kat with his rendition of Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You. That was all Heath!
His First U.S. Role
Before 10 Things I Hate About You, Ledger was cast in small roles here and there. He appeared in the family comedy Paws (1997) and had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in The interview (1998). But outside of Australia, Ledger was completely unknown.
His starring role in 10 Things I Hate About You was his first role in America and launched the undiscovered actor into stardom. In the following two years, the actor went on to appear in cinematic hits like A Knight’s Tale and the Oscar-winning Monster’s Ball.
Beating Out American Teen Heartthrobs
The iconic role of Patrick Verona was highly sought after. Tons of Hollywood teen heartthrobs wanted to portray the high school hottie, including Josh Harnett. He was in the midst of filming The Virgin Suicides when he auditioned for the part.
That ’70s Show star Ashton Kutcher also tried out for the part, and in the early 2000s, Ashton was already a well-known Hollywood hunk. Incredibly, the up-and-coming Aussie beat both established actors to the role. With his charm and charisma, he was truly the perfect leading man.
Similarities to Joseph Gordon Levitt
Heath Ledger starred in 10 Things About You, alongside 18-year-old Joseph Gordon Levitt. The dynamic actors share more in common than one movie. Sure, 10 Things I Hate About You was an early movie for the eventual big stars, but they also share a striking resemblance which is often talked about.
Plus, they both later appeared in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie series. One of Ledger’s most iconic roles was the Joker, while Levitt played Robin in the movie’s acclaimed sequel, The Dark Knight Rises.
Not The Paycheck You’d Expect
We associate huge stars like Heath Ledger with multi-million-dollar paychecks. I mean, that’s just the natural impression of glamorous stars with starring roles in successful Hollywood productions. That’s why it may come as a surprise that Ledger made a modest $100,000 for his role as Patrick Verona.
10K is certainly nothing to make fun of; I’ll probably never make that much money in my life. Plus, the 20-year-old Ledger was probably just happy to have a job. The real shock, however, is that the movie had incredible success at the box office, raking in $60.4 million USD! Ledger got ripped off!
Patrick Was Australian…. Sort of…
From his cowboy twang in Brokeback Mountain to his medieval English drawl in a Knight’s Tale, Heath Ledger certainly knew how to hide his Australian way of speaking and perfect all types of accents for different roles. That’s why it may be confusing to notice how Patrick’s accent switches between Australian and American.
Don’t worry; it was all intentional. Director Gil Junger felt that the actor’s Aussie accent gave a certain edge to the character. Plus, Australian accents are attractive. In any case, Junger said that the accent made Patrick more “dangerous and sexy.”
Playing With Fire
When acting in a Hollywood movie, you usually have to follow the script without much room for improvement. But that wasn’t how it worked on the set of 10 Things I Hate About You. That memorable moment when Patrick plays with a live flame was not in the script.
Ledger cleverly improvised the scene. It helped give the character that dangerous, bad boy persona he was going for. He wasn’t the only one to improvise in the rom-com. Julia Stiles wasn’t meant to cry when she read the 10 Things poem, but of course, it made the scene so much better.
A Foreshadowing Inspiration
When discussing his role as Patrick during an interview, Ledger explained that Jack Nicholson was a major inspiration for the role: “My Patrick has also got a Jack Nicholson edge to him with his cheekiness and his smiles,” Ledger said.
Evidently, the Nicholson influence stayed with the actor. Almost a decade later, he went on to play the Joker after Nicholson immortalized the role in Tim Burton’s 1989 adaptation of Batman. Ledger stepped into his big clown shoes and certainly didn’t let his hero down.