Name: Heath Ledger
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
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.