In the spring of 2001, Heath Ledger sat at the bar in New York City's Regency Hotel, perched on the precipice of a kind of fame he wasn't sure he wanted. The 22-year-old Australian actor was about to appear in his first leading role in a Hollywood summer tentpole, a splashy rock & roll jousting movie called A Knight's Tale, and the newfound attention seemed to make him uncomfortable. As he spoke with a reporter for this magazine, he chain-smoked Camel Lights, fidgeted, and doodled with crayons on cocktail napkins, pressing so hard that the paper ripped. He said that the first time he'd seen his image on the movie's poster, wearing full medieval armor and a hard stare, he felt so nervous he shook. Out in Hollywood, many were busily mapping out his future for him: big-dollar paydays, hordes of screaming fans trailing his every move, spandex-clad-superhero roles. In fact, he had already been offered the starring role in the newly launched Spider-Man franchise and turned it down. (''I just don't care for comics,'' he said matter-of-factly. ''It would have been stealing someone else's dream.'') In the face of all of Hollywood's promises and pressures, Ledger seemed to have his eyes on something more ethereal and indefinable. ''I'm on a f---ing journey,'' he said. ''I'm on a walkabout. A lot of people think ambition or success, and they think dollars.... My success is getting underneath that. At the f---ing end of the day, that's the only thing you're going to carry with you when you die.''
Tragically, that journey ended on the afternoon of Jan. 22, when the actor was found dead at age 28 in his rented apartment in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood. Ledger was discovered naked in his bed by a housekeeper and a masseuse who had arrived for a regular appointment, a package of ''prescription-type'' sleeping pills nearby. (In a New York Times interview last November, Ledger had complained of having difficulty sleeping due to stress, to the point where a double dose of Ambien would only buy him an hour of rest.) There were no illegal drugs in the apartment, chief police spokesman Paul J. Browne reported, no evidence of foul play, and no initial indication of suicide. Pending an autopsy, it was unclear at press time what caused his death and whether prescription medications played a role.
The tragedy struck in the midst of an already hectic day in the entertainment industry, as Hollywood reacted to the morning's announcement of the Oscar nominations and the latest buzz emanating from Sundance. But word spread with lightning speed via cell phones and BlackBerries, and in nearly every case was met with disbelief. One high-ranking studio exec, after receiving an e-mail stating that Ledger was dead, quickly wrote back: ''What you mean his career?'' Charlize Theron learned the news while walking a red carpet at Sundance. Josh Hartnett was blindsided at a Sundance Q&A by a question about Ledger's death; he struggled to answer even as the crowd jeered the man who had asked it. The passing of an actor in his prime he earned his first Oscar nomination at age 26 for Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain and was just months away from reinventing the Joker in the highly anticipated Batman Begins sequel, The Dark Knight seemed too shocking to absorb at first, while at the same time painfully familiar. Within minutes of the story breaking, some 300 entertainment reporters, cameramen, photographers, and fans began to descend on Ledger's building, creating a tableau that resembled a grisly perversion of a movie premiere. Bystanders snapped photos on cellphones and paparazzi climbed the fire escape of the building across the street hoping for shots into Ledger's fourth-floor loft. ''It's crazy he was so young,'' said one stunned observer.
NEXT PAGE: Ledger's colleagues pay tribute