It’s been nine years, almost to the day, since Heath Ledger’s 2008 death in New York on January 22, 2008. He was only 28-years-old and at the top of his acting game, the shining star of Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight. But, simply put, despite (maybe because of) his fame and fortune, life for him had become unbearably hellish. The fact was that he was a fragile soul for whom life in the fast lane was (in his own words) “harrowing”.
For years before his death, he had battled drug addiction. He barely slept and was almost always groggy from the doctor prescribed pills he inhaled in an effort to sleep. Shortly before his death, actress Michelle Williams had thrown him out of their New York home and was reportedly seeking sole custody of their daughter, Matilda Rose. Some say she required Ledger to be drug tested before visiting his child. Friends say he was sick, very sick, probably with walking pneumonia. But what actually happened on the day he died remains a mystery. Prescription drug overdose, the coroner said. But where had the drugs come from? And it soon became clear that there had been a telling delay between his body being found and the police and emergency services being called in. Did fame and fortune kill him? Here are 15 things about Heath Ledger’s life and death that he probably wouldn’t want you to know.
15. A Dead Man Walking
The thing about Heath Ledger was that he was such a nice guy. Even when he was drugged up, he was a nice guy. And when he and My Week with Marilyn star Michelle Williams met while he was filming his (then) greatest role as a married cowboy who falls in love with another cowboy in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, they literally fell into one another’s arms and beds. Months later, Ledger was receiving the kind of film reviews actors can usually only dream about and Michelle was pregnant with their daughter Matilda Rose. But, reports are that in 2006 Michelle, concerned about Ledger’s drug use, drove him to Promises Malibu, the rehab of choice of stars like Lindsay Lohan. But he flipped out and refused to sign in, promising to clean up his act. Less than two years later, he was dead.
14. Mary-Kate Olsen, The Masseuse And Those Mysterious Phone Calls
Here’s the scene: In January of 2008, Ledger had finished The Dark Knight and was going back and forth to England to film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. He was living on his own in a $24,000 a month apartment in New York. He had a housekeeper, a masseuse and no end of lovely ladies on tap, including (some say) child star Mary-Kate Olsen. The reports of what happened are not consistent. But, it appears that on the afternoon of Tuesday, January 22, his housekeeper let his masseuse in. Apparently, Heath was still asleep. When the masseuse discovered his body, early reports said she called Miss Olsen and then immediately called the emergency services. That story soon changed, when phone records indicated the unlicensed masseuse had called Mary-Kate (then in California) some four times and that the actress had sent in her own security staff. It got worse after the autopsy results were in. WTF? Read on.
13. The Beginning Of The End Video
Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont hotel is the kind of place where (reportedly) stars like Scarlett Johansson have sex in its elevator and troubled stars like John Belushi OD on drugs and die. It is awash with celebrities. And in 2006, with his then-girlfriend Michelle Williams and daughter Matilda Rose, asleep down the hall, Heath Ledger was caught on video doing what looked like drugs, bragging about how much pot he used to smoke and saying if Michelle found out what he was up to, he would be in big trouble. Behind him was an Oscar nominated performance as a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain and ahead of him his tour de force performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight. But the drugs, prescribed and illegal, were taking over. It was only a matter of time.
12. A Hint Of Suicide?
Heath Ledger was reportedly obsessed with an English musician called Nick Drake. Why? Well, reportedly the troubled 70s rocker had a history of depression and committed suicide at 24 years old in 1974 by overdosing on antidepressant drugs, in the wake of a break up with a girlfriend. Sound familiar? Ledger wanted to do a documentary about him. And, as it turned out, he had directed a music video of Drake’s song “Black Eyed Dog”. Even more creepy is the fact that the song was the last one recorded by Drake and the Ledger video features Ledger himself drowning in a bathtub as the song ends. In the wake of Ledger’s all-too-similar-to-Drake’s death, some wondered. And his parents saw fit to say Ledger would have never taken his own life.
11. Early Days And The Love Child
Long before he came to Hollywood, Heath Ledger was a normal, good lucking Australian kid, with a love for sports and a fondness for the stage. His first role? Peter Pan, at the ripe old age of 10. Now, in terms of English newspapers, The Telegraph is about as conservative as they get and so when a few months after his death that august rag published a story that claimed the 17-year-old Aussie Ledger had fathered a love child with a much older 20-something woman, well the world sat up and took notice. Not least of all because there was then the usual family squabble over where his millions would end up. The story fizzled, like so many of the 25,000 or so stories that appeared in the wake of his death. And those millions? Read on.
10. If I Weren’t Acting I’d Be In Rehab
Fathering a love child didn’t take up much time and so teenage Heath Ledger kept busy by being the “pretty boy” on many an Australian TV soaps. It was easy: Don’t fluff the lines and look hot, they told him. And when he hit Hollywood? Don’t think they were lining up to give him juicy movie roles. It was more “don’t fluff the lines and look hot”. Take 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You. “Hey girlie. How you doin'” was about as deep as it got. He did a totally cute rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”, jumping around to avoid police in a homage to one of his heroes, dancer Gene Kelly. But, he was dissatisfied and frustrated, calling “those” mindless Hollywood movies his deal with the devil. But even then there were demons. Ledger said had he not been appearing in vapid teen movies he would have probably been in drug rehab. He might have been better off if he’d skipped the movies and gone straight to rehab.
9. The Great Mystery And Mary-Kate Ducks A Subpoena
Back to Ledger’s death. Once the autopsy report was in, the verdict seemed straightforward: Accidental overdose of prescription medicine. Only thing was that no prescription bottles had been found for some of the drugs in his system. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) pursued Ledger’s doctors. The docs had not prescribed the stuff. So, where did it come from? Then, what with the delay and all in calling the emergency services, the authorities wanted to interview Mary-Kate Olsen. Here’s the telling thing: She refused to be interviewed unless she received immunity from prosecution. Aha! The Feds were on the verge of issuing a subpoena when the investigating authorities backed away from the case. So, to this day, while many have very distinct suspicions of who provided those mystery meds, nobody knows for sure.
8. Welcome To Hell
Okay, Heath is in Hollywood and the studio execs are pushing him down the “teenage hunk” trail. When in 2001 when they said “do A Knights Tale. You’ll look great in armor.” He balked. But he did that movie and other totally forgettable ones. Fast forward to 2005. Just about every actor in Hollywood had been approached to play gay cowboy Ennis Del Mar in director Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. And nobody wanted to risk it. But Heath Ledger was desperate. So, his friend (and older woman) actress Naomi Watts had a heart to heart with him and told him to do the movie. And he did. He played a cowboy in love with another cowboy (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). And the reviews he received were beyond good. But the drug abuse got worse. Why?
7. I’ll Never Make A Good Film Again
He and Michelle were all smiles in public. But Ledger’s private reaction to his success in Brokeback Mountain was telling. The reviews were to die for and he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in 2006. But, it is just true to say it was hell for him, because he doubted he could he ever top it. He said he never wanted to make a good film again. So, for the next few years, he tread water professionally, making a few “OK” films. But then in 2007, The Dark Knight came knocking and he locked himself away for a month getting ready. By the way, in 2006, he lost the Oscar to another tortured soul, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, for his masterful performance in Capote. Six years after Ledger’s death, Hoffman was dead in New York from a drug overdose.
6. Locked Away From The World With The Joker
Heath Ledger never trained as an actor. His “method” was to immerse himself in a role. As The New York Times said of Brokeback Mountain, he “magically and mysteriously disappears beneath the skin of his lean, sinewy character…” Apart from anything else, how on earth could he ever top it? So when he agreed, against the advice of some, to take on The Joker, a role previously owned and mastered by Jack Nicholson, Ledger literally locked himself away from the world in a hotel room for a month or so and became The Joker. Was it a bridge too far? Some think it pushed him over the edge. And then there was “that” diary…
How good was he? Michael Caine (who played Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred, in The Dark Knight), first encountered Heath Ledger as The Joker in a scene where the villain descends on Wayne’s apartment. It was so scary, Caine said he forgot his lines. That’s how good it was.
5. The Joker Diary
After his death, there was an avalanche of stories that purported to paint a dark and eerie image of Ledger’s troubled life. The Nick Drake thing was typical. But nothing, but nothing, topped the Joker Diary frenzy. During that long month locked away with The Joker, Ledger kept a diary. It was full of creepy images of clowns, notes to himself and bizarre snippets from “Got Milk” ads that no one could understand. And at the very end of the diary, scribbled very large was a kind of farewell: Ledger wrote “Bye Bye”. His father Kim, has gone on record saying that the actor’s preparation for The Joker went way, way beyond his usual obsessional fixation with a role. Some say, The Joker took over his life. And when Too Young to Die, a documentary on Ledger’s obsession with The Joker came out, it concluded the role had (at least in part) led to his death in January of 2008, just months after he finished filming the movie. Some reports said he had set up a kind of Joker shrine in his apartment.
4. The Unholy Family Feud Over His Millions
If you leave a lot of money, there are going to be family bust ups. That’s just a fact. Heath Ledger left a will, leaving everything to his parents and sisters. But that was before Michelle Williams and Matilda Rose came along. For the most part, the family was being civilized, with his dad Kim, saying they would do the right thing by Matilda Rose. Then up pops an uncle with that explosive love child story and shouting out loud that Kim was not up to administering Ledger’s $20 million (plus) estate. Guess he had himself in mind for that lucrative role. At the end of the day, the uncle finally shut up and most (if not all) of the money went to Matilda Rose. By the way, she is 11-years-old and looks just like her dad.
3. His Final Days
A haunting image of Heath Ledger captured on the set of his final film seems to say it all. But, “his final days” depended on who you talked to. Some saw an affable, easy going man who shopped organic in his New York neighborhood and was approachable and friendly. Others saw a troubled loner who just wanted to be left alone. Co-stars in his final film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus said he was in poor health. Conversely, an unnamed “ordinary” girl who had a fling with him in the run up to his death has said he was sober and content with his Diet Coke. But, what is clear is that whether or not he was on illicit drugs, those “prescription” drugs were very much in evidence. He would pop pills to sleep, only to wake hours later, leading to popping more pills. While his death was almost certainly an accidental overdose, it was in many ways inevitable.
2. “We Stopped Checking For Monsters Under Our Beds When We Realized They Were Inside Us.”
Nothing he ever did was good enough as far as he was concerned. Acting was not real. At one point he said that p*rn films were more perfect than what he did because they were really f*cking. Another telling quote: “We stopped checking for monsters under our beds when we realized they were inside us.” Yes, he was a lovely, affable man on one level, but he was also insecure and anxious and sometimes in-your-face. He did “not nice” very well. In the days after he died, friends and family talked of their grief. But, life goes on. And now each time one of his girlfriends has something to plug, they trot out a Heath Ledger story and are guaranteed headlines, even now. It’s showbiz, they say.
1. Dead Man Walking: The Last Interview
One of his final projects was a bizarre “rumination” on Bob Dylan, 2007’s I’m Not There. And weeks before his death, a fidgety, lip licking Ledger gave what some said was a drug fueled performance in an interview talking about his role as Tony in the film. It was clear to many that Ledger was just not with it that day. He had worked flat out that year on The Dark Night and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. At the time of the interview, he was flying back forth from New York to London for filming. Had he not died, some said he was in line for Mad Max. After his death, he was compared to that died-too-young star of the 50s, James Dean and called a legend.