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Heath Ledger - Biography

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Heath Ledger

Personal details

Name: Heath Ledger
Born: 4 April 1979
Where: Perth, Australia
Died: 22 January 2008 (Aged: 28)
Height: 6' 1"
Awards: Won 1 Oscar, 1 BAFTA and 1 Golden Globe

All about this star


When in early 2006 Heath Ledger was feted worldwide for his performance in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, most reviewers expressed surprise that the young Australian was capable of such stirring efforts. After all, wasn't he just the pretty boy who'd sung, dance and smirked his way through the teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You? Hadn't he stared smugly down from the posters of hip mediaeval comedy A Knight's Tale, posters which loudly boasted "He will rock you"? Wasn't he, for God's sake, in Home And Away?

Perhaps the reviewers should not have been so taken aback. Ledger had already shown great promise with his brief but telling appearance in the Oscar-winning Monster's Ball. Moreover, hugely adventurous and artistically ambitious, he'd proved from an early age to be a fledgling Renaissance Man, a cultural sponge, sucking up the wisdom of those older and more experienced than himself, and he'd continued this practice in his film career, drawing on the likes of Bryan Brown, Mel Gibson, Roland Emmerich, Billy Bob Thornton, Terry Gilliam and Geoffrey Rush, to say nothing of a string of girlfriends considerably his senior in age. Like Johnny Depp before him, he'd made a conscious decision to escape the heart-throb image and worked hard to become more a substantial actor. If there was anything surprising to his story, it was simply that he'd succeeded so quickly. It was consequently a genuine tragedy when he was found dead in a New York apartment on January 22nd, 2008.

He was born Heath Andrew Ledger on the 4th of April, 1979, at the Subiaco Hospital in Perth, Western Australia. The Ledger name was well-known in Perth, the family having run a foundry that provided much of the raw material for the famous Perth to Kalgoorlie Pipeline, which ran 557 kilometres east out into the desert and, beginning to pump back in 1903, first supplied the Western Australian goldfields and now served over 100,000 people and 6 million sheep in 44,000 square miles. The Sir Frank Ledger Charitable Trust, named after Heath's great-grandfather, was renowned for granting funds to the area's universities, paying for visiting lecturers and scholarships for gifted students.

In keeping with the family tradition, Heath's father Kim, a racing enthusiast, ran several engineering firms in the city, while Heath's mother, Sally, hailing from the Scottish Campbell clan, was a French teacher. High romantics, they named their son after Emily Bronte's Heathcliff having some four years earlier called their first-born daughter Catherine (she'd be known as Kate). There would be two more half-sisters, Olivia and Ashleigh, born to Kim and Sally respectively once they had separated. This would happen when Heath was 10. By then he'd already enrolled at the Guildford Grammar School, an all-boy academy set on 100 glorious hectares of undulating land beside the Swan river, some 15 kilometres to the north-east of the city. For 10 years this would be the seat of Heath's education. Dedicated to "the growth and freedom of young minds and bodies", it had vast playing fields, horse riding facilities and even its own farm. Students could go rowing on the river or test themselves in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The choir sang in the Chapel of St Mary and St George, one of the finest and most imposing examples of gothic architecture in Australia.

At Guildford, where most of the sons of Western Australia's farmers were boarders, Ledger was something of a maverick. Disturbed by the school's military aspects where cadets would be trained in the use of weaponry, he instead opted for sports, playing cricket and Rules football and especially excelling in field hockey, making the school's First XI at a very young age. He was pretty sporty all round. Outside of school he surfed and skateboarded and was a keen fisherman. He also spent much time with his father in the pits of many motor sport and speedway events, and would win several titles as a go-kart champion.

Beyond this, for he was truly a Renaissance boy, there was art. Ledger would plaster his room with abstract art and had already taken up drama. Having seen sister Kate onstage with Perth's Shakespearean troupe at the Globe theatre, he'd yearned to get up there himself and, at age 10, he did, taking the lead in the theatre's production of Peter Pan. At Guildford Grammar, given the choice of cooking or drama, he naturally picked the latter. Several teachers actively discouraged him but this just made him angry and all the more determined. As would be the norm throughout his life, he would learn rapidly. Though he had no real thoughts of a career in cinema, he did love films, particularly idolising Gene Kelly. Having taught himself to dance like his hero (another lifetime norm, this self-tuition, Ledger's not big on lessons), he'd eventually choreograph a 60-strong Guildford team to the first all-boy victory at the Rock Eisteddfod, a national competition. It was a triumph that said much for Ledger's precocious talents, rigorous self-discipline and charisma as his team of macho farmers' boys could not dance at all at first and really weren't keen on a routine Ledger had devised on the theme of Fashion.

As said, Ledger as yet had no clear idea of a screen career, but he was aware of the possibility, certainly enough to get himself taken on by his sister's agent. As an extra he'd appeared in 1992's Clowning Around, starring Ernie Dingo, where a kid ran off to join the circus, and, a year later had popped up in Ship To Shore, a kind of Australian Happy Days, both productions having been filmed in Perth. Come 1995, though, matters became more serious when Ledger joined the cast of the TV series Sweat, again shot in Perth. This would deal with the routines, temptations, disappointments and triumphs of a group of kids at an elite sports academy. Heath was given the choice of two parts - a swimmer or a cyclist - and revealed a newly burgeoning ambition when he chose to play the cyclist, Steve "Snowy" Bowles. As the character was gay, he reasoned, and gay characters never appeared on Australian TV, he was bound to be noticed. And, though the show was wretched (it was canned after 26 episodes) and the acting poor, he was.

More importantly, he made a connection. Also appearing in the show, as Tom Nash, was actor Martin Henderson. Though four years older than Ledger, he got on really well with the younger kid and recognised in him something special. On his return home to Sydney, Henderson called Ledger and told him he should come to the big city and give acting a real shot. Ledger was unsure but decided to dip his toe in the water. Arriving at Henderson's apartment with just a small bag and a surfboard, he camped in his friend's living-room and was introduced to a wider world of film, TV and theatre. As well as new surfing spots.

Though only 16, Ledger decided to give it a go. He returned to Perth, left school, gathered his belongings and, along with Trevor DiCarlo, his best friend since the age of 3 (he still gets DiCarlo hired as an assistant on his movies), he drove the 3,200 kilometres back to Sydney. Here he, DiCarlo and Henderson would share an apartment in Bondi for around a year. Ledger would teach Henderson to surf, rising at 6am to ride the waves at sunrise on the northern beaches. Henderson would lead his young westerner friends in a merry riot of girls, beer and parties.

Work, enviably, came quickly to him. He'd win a small role in the movie Blackrock where a schoolboy witnesses a rape and murder and must hold his tongue so as not to betray his friends. Then there'd be another tiny part in Paws, a frothy, Beethoven-style kids movie where Billy Connelly voiced a friendly hound who holds the secret to a $1 million fortune, Ledger appearing as a student playing Shakespeare's Oberon in a play within the movie. With money being short, he even took a part in long-running soap Home And Away, concerning the lives and loves of the residents of Summer Bay. Ledger would appear in several episodes as Scott Irwin, a rough-boy surfer-type who hides a shameful secret and commits assuault when he's framed and excluded from school.

The big breakthrough, though, would come with Roar. This was a US-financed mediaeval fantasy, filmed in Queensland and inspired by Braveheart, where Ledger would star as Conor, a Celtic prince who, often clad only in a loincloth, each week struggles with a new girl and a new, sometimes magical enemy as he attempts to unite the warring clans and rid Britain of Roman invaders. His chief opponent would be the fellow who speared Jesus on the cross and now cannot die, while his young wife would be played by Keri Russell, soon to find fame as the lead in the TV comedy Felicity, but she'd be quickly killed, a mistake producers Fox would vainly rack their brains to rectify.

Roar was not a success in the States, rapidly dropping down the ratings, and would be pulled before all filmed episodes were screened. Yet for Ledger it was life-changing. Not only did it give him vital extended experience in front of the cameras, plus a keen cult following among young ladies in America, it also introduced him to co-star Lisa Zane (sister of Billy) an actress 12 years his senior with whom he began a relationship. With Fox heavily hyping the series, Ledger found himself an American agent and followed Zane back to Los Angeles. But to no avail, no work could be found.

Oddly, he'd be rescued from torpor by the Australian film industry when he won the lead in Gregor Jordan's Two Hands. Here he'd play Jimmy, a low-grade hustler in suburban Sydney, dreaming of success in the criminal underworld. Asked to deliver $10,000 by Bryan Brown's big-shot Pando, he's distracted by love interest Rose Byrne and gets turned over, then having to involve himself in a bank robbery in order to pay an irate Pando back. It was clever, confident stuff, an Australian Lock Stock, with Ledger putting in a strong performance - first sassy, then fearful, but always shy and awkward in the company of Byrne.

Back in Hollywood, he now scored a part most young actors would kill for. 10 Things I Hate About You, co-starring teen-of-the-moment Julia Stiles, was a broad-stroke rewrite of Shakespeare's The Taming Of The Shrew, set in High School. Stiles would play the beautiful but difficult shrew who must be persuaded to go to the prom so her younger sister can also attend. Thus the sister's boyfriend hires class maverick Ledger, a rebel with a winning smile, to steal Stiles' heart and take her to the dance. Naturally, after a series of verbal sparrings, they fall for one another, then she discovers the plot and, well, you can guess the rest. It was charming fare and a great role for Ledger who got to sing and dance as well as spar, at one point coming on like his hero Gene Kelly as he cavorts around the raised seating on the sports field, serenading Stiles with the accompaniment of the school's marching band. That 10 Things more than doubled its money at the US box office made him all the more marketable.

The scripts now came pouring in. Unfortunately, they were all High School romps where Ledger would be required to do little more than flash that Cruise-like smile, and maybe break out the loin-cloth for the girls. Heath, though, had other ambitions, he wanted to be taken seriously and recognised that any more romping would severely damage any chance he had of being considered for serious parts, particularly in the indie sector. He instructed his agent to bin all High School scripts and settled down to enjoy life in Laurel Canyon where he lived with some Aussie friends and his new girlfriend, model Christina Cauchi, an old acquaintance he'd met again while she was visiting LA.

After about a year of poverty, during which he claims to have lived mostly on noodles and water, his uncompromising stance paid off when he won a prime role in the Mel Gibson vehicle The Patriot. This saw Gibson as a traumatised veteran of the French and Indian Wars who reluctantly enters the fray against the Brits when one of his sons is shot and his house is burned down. Cue bloody mayhem as Gibson takes the visceral violence of Michael Mann's Last Of The Mohicans to unnecessarily gory levels. Ledger would appear as Gibson's son, an enthusiastic freedom-fighter imbued with a keen sense of justice and a burning desire to end all slavery, who eggs on his father and also falls for colonial girl Lisa Bremer. Again, it was a showcase role, but this time involving Gibson-style angst and melodrama, a real learning experience.

And it so nearly didn't happen. Though 10 Things had raised his industry profile, Ledger was lacking in self-confidence, aware of his lack of experience and formal training. During his first audition before director Roland Emmerich, he'd lost it, walked out, only to be called back by a casting director who knew he just couldn't be that bad (Emmerich also noticed that all the women in his company were rooting for Ledger to get the part). Ledger's second attempt was better and he beat off 200 other hopefuls (including future co-star Jake Gyllenhaal), eventually winning a final shoot-out with Ryan Phillippe. It was typical of Ledger that he would share his success with his mates, saving up his per diem payments and handing them to a struggling Martin Henderson.

He was on his way. But it wasn't all plain sailing. He was turned down for the role of the Devil in Arnold Schwarzanegger's End Of Days, and for the hit series Roswell. Having gone for the role of Max Evans, one of four human/alien hybrid teens with special powers, he was passed over by producers Fox who still lacked confidence in him after the failure of Roar. Famously, still set of becoming a "proper" actor, he'd refuse the part of Spiderman. Later, he'd be deemed too young to play opposite Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge, Ewan McGregor stepping in instead.

Ledger's next outing would be another success. This was A Knight's Tale, written and directed by Brian Helgeland who'd won an Oscar for his LA Confidential screenplay. Here Ledger would play a squire who, his livelihood threatened when his master dies, illegally takes on the mantle of knight and, abetted by a crew of friends and Paul Bettany's hilariously flamboyant Geoffrey Chaucer, battles evil Rufus Sewell for a jousting title and the hand of a nobleman's daughter. Blessed with a brilliantly inappropriate rock soundtrack, it was hugely silly but impressively romantic, its charm not lessened by a controversy over its poster when Columbia were found to have made up the glowing review by fictitious journalist David Manning. Ah, that poster. Ledger would be horrified by the wannabe star status it afforded him, feeling the "He will rock you" tagline put too much emphasis on an actor who had yet to really prove himself. Still, the movie was a hit and it would bring Ledger another glamorous girlfriend in Heather Graham, 9 years his senior. They'd meet in Prague where he was filming A Knight's Tale and she was making From Hell with Johnny Depp.

Ledger would remain on horseback for his next picture, The Four Feathers, already successfully adapted from AEW Mason's novel in 1939 and 1978 and this time directed by Shekhar "Elizabeth" Kapur. Ledger would take the lead role as Harry Faversham who refuses to fight with the British army in 1875 Sudan and instead resigns his commission so he can remain with his lover, Kate Hudson. This of course leads to public disgrace and, having received the titular feathers from his friends and fiancee, who think him a bally coward, he takes off for Sudan on his own and shadows his regiment, dashingly rescuing them from all manner of danger. It was riproaring stuff, but a financial disaster that might have blighted Ledger's fledgling career had it not been for one screaming stroke of luck it brought him. Co-star Wes Bentley felt in desperate need of a break but was contracted to shoot Monster's Ball immediately after The Four Feathers. He asked Ledger to take his part and spare him the wrath of the studios and this Ledger did, at obscenely short notice taking over the role of Sonny Grotowski, the sensitive son of prison guard Billy Bob Thornton. Unable to stand the jibes of his father and racist grandfather Peter Boyle, and painfully disturbed by the hideous work he's expected to carry out on Death Row, he blows himself away, thus acting as a catalyst for Thornton's own redemption. It was a small part, but pivotal and Ledger, for the first time, showed he had it in him to be a genuine character actor.

Having split from Heather Graham by June, 2001, Ledger was by now back with Christina Cauchi and living in New York's West Village. But work would now take him to Rome where he'd reunite with Brian Helgeland and much of the cast of A Knight's Tale for The Sin Eater. This was a low-grade religious thriller where Ledger would play a renegade Catholic priest in Italy to investigate the death of the head of his secret order. Doors scraped and slammed, shadows hid menacing presences, church conspiracies abounded and an infamous monster lurked. It was all, despite moments of intelligence, pretty silly. A January 2002 release would be put back for a year as scenes that inadvertently caused outbursts of mirth at test-screenings had to be re-shot.

Ledger would return to Australia for his next movie, Ned Kelly, which would see him reunite with director Gregor Jordan. It would also see him leave Christina Cauchi and quickly take up with co-star Naomi Watts (also a Home And Away veteran), 11 years his senior and then hot after The Ring (in which she'd appeared with Ledger's old mate Martin Henderson). As Kelly, Ledger would be subdued and noble, a young Irishman persecuted by racist authority. He'd also, of course, be hugely heroic as he led a gang including Orlando Bloom into bank robberies and away from the pursuing forces of Geoffrey Rush. Unfortunately, the film would generate little interest outside Australia and receive no proper release in the States.

Ledger was now big news. His relationship with Heather Graham had turned him into tabloid fodder and his affair with Naomi Watts, Oscar-nominated for 21 Grams and set to star in Peter Jackson's King Kong, brought a great deal more unwanted attention. Fame was not what he was after, and he again proved it by turning down the lead in Oliver Stone's mega-budget epic Alexander. True to his character, he instead stayed focused on his aims and launched into a rapid succession of deliberately varied roles. The Lords Of Dogtown, a fictional adaptation of the renowned documentary Dogtown And Z-Boys, saw him as Skip, the stoned and drunken 1970s shop owner who sponsors a pioneering local skateboarding team and helps them on their way to fame. Then would come The Brothers Grimm where he and Matt Damon would play the titular siblings, travelling con men who fool the 18th Century public with phony magic. Damon is entirely cynical, Ledger more innocent, but both are terrified when Jonathan Pryce catches them and sends them to rescue lost children from a forest haunted by Monica Bellucci's murderous Mirror Queen. It was, as you'd expect from Terry Gilliam, amazing to look at but a tad weak in script, possibly due to confusion when MGM pulled the finances, Gilliam took a break to film Tideland and then the Weinstein brothers stepped in with the inevitable arguments that involves (interestingly, after 10 Things, Ledger had been set to star in Calcio, about an English football fan in Sardinia, but it had been cancelled at the last because Harvey Weinstein didn't think enough of him. Weinstein would change his mind in time to finance The Four Feathers).

In the can and awaiting release was Candy, a moving Asutralian production that saw Ledger and Abbie Cornish as a beautiful young couple who, with the help of louche mentor Geoffrey Rush, begin to experiment with drugs and wind up addicted to heroin. Both escaping their past pain, they're bound together by fear and addiction, but also by love, a love that's severly tested when Cornish begins to lose her mind. It was tough stuff, but would win a far larger audience than might've been expected due to Ledger's major success with Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain. Based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx, this was set in 1963 Wyoming with Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as young ranch-hands tending animals on the mountain of the title. Drawn to each other, they have sex but cannot accept their sexuality, particularly Ledger, brainwashed into denial by his monstrously homophobic father. However, when both are later married and settled into "normal" lives, Gyllenhaal throws off his sexual shackles and goes looking for Ledger, beginning a not-so-secret long-term affair that torments Ledger and destroys his rightly suspicious wife, Michelle Williams.

Though ostensibly about a forbidden gay love affair, the movie really concerned the living of lies and the denial of self and thus it found a massive audience. Still, given the religious climate in middle America, Ledger and Gyllenhaal were taking a mighty risk and deserved the accolades they received, Ledger being nominated for a Golden Globe, an honour he'd rightly been denied when first taking such a risk, back with Sweat. Many top-lines actors had been afraid to take the lead roles, despite Ang Lee's reputation. Ledger, though, had been encouraged to take it by Naomi Watts and had also been inspired to do so by the story of his own uncle, Neil Bell who, at 20, had been asked by his father if he was gay. Having said yes, his father told him that he was ill and must either go to hospital to be cured, or leave. Eventually, Neil would relocate from Perth to Los Angeles and, for years would bury his sexuality beneath layers of machismo, even venturing out into the Nevada desert to engage in bareknuckle boxing tournaments.

Beyond the accolades, Brokeback Mountain would also bring Ledger a wife in Michelle Williams, formerly the star of TV hit Dawson's Creek. She, like her husband, had left school early and sought a new life of her own. Indeed, she'd revealed an even more independent steak than Ledger's in that she'd fought for legal emancipation from her parents and taken off for Los Angeles on her own. She, too, would be nominated for a Golden Globe for her efforts in Brokeback Mountain, having already borne Ledger a daughter, Matilda Rose (Matilda? How Aussie is that?).

Next, as if to confound anyone confused by his convincing performance in Brokeback Mountain, he played the world's greatest seducer of women in Lasse Hallstrom's Casanova. This was a decadent farce, purposefully overblown and Ledger would hurl himself into his role. Having knocked off one woman too many in Venice, Casanova must mend his reputation by marrying a lady of good repute, but instead falls for swashbuckling feminist Sienna Miller who deeply disapproves of his bedtime activities. Thus Ledger must don various disguises to woo her away from her fiance, lard merchant Oliver Platt, while also avoiding the severe attentions of inquisitor Jeremy Irons.

Still on the up, Ledger would receive glowing reviews for his performance in Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, a fascinating, fragmented exploration of the life, work and character of Bob Dylan, where six actors would each portray an aspect of Dylan, including Ledger's fellow Aussie Cate Blanchett. Adding a further twist, Ledger would play a hot-shot actor of the James Dean mould playing Dylan in a mid-Sixties film of the singer's life. Vain, petulant and egotistical, he'd wreck his marriage to French artist Charlotte Gainsbourg by lusting after fame and other women, mirroring Dylan's own failure as a husband and father. Also egotistical would be Ledger's next character, The Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. This would see Christian Bale's Batman (Bale having also played the Sixties folky version of Dylan in I'm Not There) teaming up with Gary Oldman's cop James Gordon and Aaron Eckhart's DA Harvey Dent to battle Ledger's twitching, cold-blooded sociopath. Having spent a month in a London hotel room working on The Joker's mind-set, his voice and his crazed laugh, Ledger would deliver a character far darker than the efforts of Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson. Clad in threadbare duds and smeared and caked makeup, he'd be a genuinely sinister presence.

Sadly - very sadly - before The Dark Knight was released, Ledger was found dead. On Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008, a masseuse arrived at Ledger's Manhattan apartment for a scheduled appointment. The housekeeper went to tell the actor of her arrival and found him naked and face-down at the foot of the bed, unconscious and unresponsive. Immediately there were stories insinuating suicide. Ledger had recently split from his wife and had been complaining of insomnia due to the stress of work, a condition that had caused him to take sleeping pills. Pills, it was said, were found strewn about the room. As it turned out, there were pills, but nothing especially suspicious. The initial autopsy would be inconclusive and Ledger, it was reported, had been his usual happy, professional self only the Saturday before when filming The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus in London, a fantasy adventure film that reunited him with his Brothers Grimm director Terry Gilliam. The production was about to move to Vancouver. Suicide now seemed very unlikely. Indeed, the New York Medical Examiner would rule that Ledger had died of an accidental overdose of presciption drugs, traces of six different medications being found in his system, including painkillers, sleeping pills, anti-anxiety tablets and antihistamines. His memorial service would be held at Penrhos College in Perth, with one eulogy being read by his friend and former co-star Cate Blanchett. Even after death his fame would grow, and for his efforts as The Joker he would win an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA.

Away from work, Ledger had been moving between New York and Australia, continuing his artistic growth by pursuing interests in poetry (reading and writing it), photography, art and architecture. He'd also made it clear that he hoped to build a theatrical career. His death, at a painfully young 28, robbed the worlds of film and theatre of a burgeoning talent, a serious-minded star who, with Brokeback Mountain, had proved he had it in him to become the consistent equal of such peers as Blanchett and Christian Bale. We will miss him especially for what he might have been.

Dominic Wills

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