Heath Ledger: The ‘Joker’ Who Drew Parallels With Marlon Brando

Heath Ledger: The ‘Joker’ Who Drew Parallels With Marlon Brando

Heath Ledger was an Australian-born actor, whose breakthrough role as a gay cowboy in the 2005 movie “Brokeback Mountain” earned him a nomination for an Academy Award and comparisons to the likes of Marlon Brando.

Ledger did win an Oscar,  posthumously though for his Supporting Actor as the “Joker” in the 2008 Batman Movie, The Dark Knight. It was a hauntingly gripping portrayal that would stay forever with his fans.

Heathcliff Andrew Ledger was born on April 4, 1979, in Perth, Australia, where a local theater company cast him in “Peter Pan” when he was 10. That role led to parts on children’s television programs, and to the 1992 film “Clowning Around” and the television series “Ship to Shore.”

But the magazine Current Biography said he was also a champion at chess and go-kart racing as a youngster, and played field hockey until his coach forced him to choose between that sport and drama.

After appearing in a short-lived Australian television series, he moved to Los Angeles in 1999. His first Hollywood film was the teenage romantic comedy “10 Things I Hate About You,” a send-up of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” in which he appeared opposite Julia Stiles.

He passed up other roles in teen films. “I feel like I’m wasting time if I repeat myself,” he said in a 2007 interview with The New York Times. He paid a price, running so low on money that, according to Current Biography, he was borrowing from his agent. The magazine quoted him as telling The Evening Standard in London, “I was literally living off ramen noodles and water, because I was sticking to my game.”

The payoff came in an audition for Mel Gibson’s film “The Patriot”. Mr. Ledger’s second audition; he had walked out of the first, saying his first was no good. He later appeared in “A Knight’s Tale” and “Monster’s Ball” in 2001, and in four films released in 2005: “Lords of Dogtown,” “Casanova,” “The Brothers Grimm” and the cowboy romance that established him as a major star, “Brokeback Mountain.”

“Mr. Ledger magically and mysteriously disappears beneath the skin of his lean, sinewy character,” Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times. “It is a great screen performance, as good as the best of Marlon Brando and Sean Penn.” Mr. Ledger was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor, but the Oscar went to Philip Seymour Hoffman for “Capote.”

Still, Mr. Ledger was viewed as a significant talent on the rise. Although he was notoriously choosy about his roles, he was well-liked by directors and his fellow actors, an amiable presence on the set who gave little indication if he was experiencing personal turmoil.

“I had such great hope for him,” Mr. Gibson said in a statement. “He was just taking off and to lose his life at such a young age is a tragic loss.”

Mr. Ledger met Ms. Williams while filming “Brokeback Mountain.” They began a romance and moved to Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, where their comings and goings were widely noted in the New York tabloids and on celebrity-oriented Web sites. Ms. Williams gave birth to their daughter, Matilda Rose, on Oct. 28, 2005.

Until they separated last summer, he, Ms. Williams and Matilda were the darlings of Brooklyn, photographed around Boerum Hill. But Mr. Ledger often clashed with paparazzi — most intensely back home in Australia.

In January 2006, photographers sprayed him with water pistols at the Sydney premiere of “Brokeback Mountain.” Mr. Ledger left the country soon after, and was quoted as saying he was sick of Australia because the photographers were so intrusive. The paparazzi accused him of spitting on them, which he denied. Later that year, blogs reported that he and Ms. Williams had made obscene gestures at photographers in Mexico.

But a Brooklyn blog, the Brownstoner, proudly posted this comment from The Daily Telegraph of Sydney after he and Ms. Williams bought their house near Smith Street: “Ledger, who’s had a rocky relationship with the paparazzi in Australia, has found Brooklyn’s residents to be a good deal mellower. ‘He’s very nice and they’re very sweet people,’ said his neighbor Margaret Cusack. ‘We got to go to the premiere of “Brokeback Mountain” — he gave us tickets.’ ” Reached on Tuesday after Mr. Ledger had died, Ms. Cusack said she would not comment.

After splitting up with Ms. Williams – and jilting Brooklyn – Mr. Ledger remained a favorite of tabloids and photographers. He was linked to the model Gemma Ward, and last month Page Six reported that Mr. Ledger and the actress Kate Hudson had been seen “kissing and making out” at a West Village restaurant. (Her publicist denied it.)

Mr. Ledger’s death on January 22, 2008 shook Warner Brothers, which was scheduled to release his The Dark Knight in July that year.

His death came as the studio was rolling out a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign. The film’s dominant marketing image, cheered by fans when it was unveiled late last year, showed Mr. Ledger in costume, painting the question “Why So Serious?” in what appears to be blood.

In an interview with WJW-TV, a Fox affiliate in Cleveland, about “I’m Not There,” in which he was one of several actors playing the music legend Bob Dylan, Mr. Ledger struck a philosophical note. He responded to a question about how having a child had changed his life:

“You’re forced into, kind of, respecting yourself more,” he said. “You learn more about yourself through your child, I guess. I think you also look at death differently. It’s like a Catch-22: I feel good about dying now because I feel like I’m alive in her, you know, but at the same hand, you don’t want to die because you want to be around for the rest of her life.”

  • James Barron, New York Times


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