The Life and Legacy of Heath Ledger

Photo Credit: Buena Vista Pictures
April 30th, 2012

Heath Ledger had somewhat of a whirlwind acting career. He did not begin seriously acting until his late teens and then passed away at the age of 28. This left only about a decade for him to make his mark on Hollywood. However, he managed to make a truly lasting impression despite this limitation of time.

Born on April 4, 1979, Heath Ledger did not come from a family that was already famous, unlike many other young actors of his time. He made his way in acting through his own merits and talents. In the 1990s, Ledger made his presence known in the Australian film scene. He saw minor success, mostly in roles on television shows such as "Sweat" and "Home and Away." However, Ledger wasn't really noticed until he began acting in American films.

Ledger's first U.S. role was in "Roar," a short-lived television series about a young tribal Irishman fighting against the Romans. This show only lasted for a year, but it helped Heath Ledger get noticed as an actor in America. Two years after his role in "Roar," in 1999, Heath landed the role that helped him rise to fame. He starred as Patrick in "10 Things I Hate About You," a movie based on "The Taming of the Shrew" by William Shakespeare. By setting the movie in a modern-day high school, filmmakers appealed to teen audiences who came to revere 20-year-old Ledger as the newest celebrity heartthrob.

While his heartthrob status helped establish Ledger in the film industry, he still needed to prove that he was more than just a handsome face. To showcase his acting ability, Heath Ledger accepted a wide range of roles. In the period drama "The Patriot," Ledger played the son of a Patriot farmer (played by Mel Gibson) during the American Revolutionary War. During the course of this film, the father and son pair fight together to avenge the deaths of their family members and save their country.

Heath Ledger also played the lead role of William Thatcher in the action adventure film "A Knight's Tale." In this movie, which is about a peasant squire defying all odds to become a knight, Ledger again showed audiences and film executives that he was a talented and capable actor. Ledger didn't truly make headlines, though, until he starred alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in "Brokeback Mountain." This romantic drama, based on a short story by Annie Proulx, tells the story of two young men from the grasslands of Wyoming who form a forbidden relationship and bond. "Brokeback Mountain" won three Oscars, and Heath Ledger was nominated for an Oscar for his role.

As famous as Ledger had become in his short acting career, he did not receive his greatest acclaim until after his death. He was found dead in his New York City apartment on January 22, 2008. Authorities concluded that he died of an accidental overdose of several prescription drugs, including painkillers, sleeping pills, and anti-anxiety medicine. Heath Ledger died shortly after he had finished filming for his role as the Joker in "The Dark Knight."

"The Dark Knight" was released in July of 2008, six months after Ledger's death. The film chronicles the adventures of Batman as he fights to save Gotham City from the evil Joker. Heath Ledger's depiction of the Joker was darker and more dramatic than other versions of the character in previous films. Some members of the public even speculate that it was the disturbing nature of the character he was playing that caused Ledger to turn to sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medicine in the first place.

Regardless of the speculations surrounding it, Heath Ledger gave an amazing performance as the Joker, earning him his first and only Oscar for Best Actor. Since this Oscar was awarded posthumously, about a year after his death, it was accepted onstage by his father, mother, and sister. The Oscar will be kept by Ledger's parents until his daughter, Matilda, inherits it when she becomes an adult. In addition to this Oscar, Heath Ledger won over 30 more awards and nominations for his role as the Joker.

While Ledger won the most critical acclaim for his work on "The Dark Knight", it was not his last film. When he died, Heath Ledger was in the middle of filming "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." Though Ledger was not finished with his role in this film, the filmmakers used a loophole in the plot to allow other actors to fill in for Heath Ledger and finish the film, allowing it to be released in 2009 as a final tribute to his varied acting career.