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Remembering Heath Ledger On What Would Have Been His 42nd Birthday

Heath Ledger would’ve turned 42 today. Ledger died on January 22, 2008 as a result of an accidental overdose of prescription medications.

Born in Perth, Australia, Ledger first came to prominence on Australian TV before crossing over to the U.S as a teen heartthrob in 10 Things I Hate About You. From there, his career skyrocketed, playing Mel Gibson’s son in the Revolutionary War epic The Patriot, before leading his own blockbuster with A Knight’s Tale. While he could have gone an easier route to Hollywood stardom, Ledger opted to take risks, co-starring as Billy Bob Thornton’s doomed son in Monster’s Ball, and eventually leading the stone-cold classic Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee and co-starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

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Ledger will probably always be most associated with his last role before he died, that of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight.

A few months before his death, Ledger had finished filming his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight. At the time of his death, The Dark Knight was in post-production, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was in the midst of filming, in which he was playing his last role as Tony.

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His death affected the subsequent promotion of The Dark Knight. His performance earned him universal acclaim and popularity from fans and critics alike. Ledger also received numerous posthumous awards for his work on The Dark Knight, including the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, a Best Actor International Award at the 2008 Australian Film Institute Awards, the 2008 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actor, the 2009 Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture, and the 2009 BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Following his death, interviews he’d given in the months prior suddenly had  darker pallor than previously.He suggested being under a great deal of stress in a November 4, 2007 profile in the New York Times. Ledger was doing a press tour for I’m Not There director Todd Haynes’ strange, audacious new film, which attempts to get to the heart of Bob Dylan by dancing around him. “In a film that uses multiple actors to portray multiple aspects of Dylan, Mr. Ledger plays Dylan the media superstar, a charismatic, swaggering figure who parties with celebrities, wears look-at-me-but-leave-me-alone sunglasses and watches his personal life collapse under the pressures of his public persona. Yes, but what does the film mean?”

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Mr. Ledger laughed and compared I’m Not There to a Rubik’s Cube, insoluble by mere mortals. “Bob Dylan himself defies description, and I think Todd was aiming to represent him. He was not trying to sum him up or define him.”

But because Christian Bale, the actor who plays this early Dylan in the film, was scheduled to film his scenes after Mr. Ledger, Mr. Ledger said he was faced with “playing an actor portraying Christian portraying a Dylanesque character, and not being sure what Christian was going to do.” Or, to put it another way, “Who was I playing when I was acting?”

It all tied him in knots. “I stressed out a little too much,” Mr. Ledger said.

He tends to do that. He is here in London filming the latest episode of the “Batman” franchise, “The Dark Knight.” (Mr. Bale, as it happens, plays Batman; Mr. Ledger plays the Joker.) It is a physically and mentally draining role — his Joker is a “psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy” he said cheerfully — and, as often happens when he throws himself into a part, he is not sleeping much.

“Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night,” he said. “I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.” One night he took an Ambien, which failed to work. He took a second one and fell into a stupor, only to wake up an hour later, his mind still racing.

Ambien was one of the drugs that contributed to his overdose. As news of Mr. Ledger’s death made its way across the Internet, the Police Department issued a fairly terse summary of the death: “On Tuesday, 01/22/08, at approximately 1530 hours, in the confines of the 5 precinct, police responded to 421 Broome Street and found a M/W/28 unconscious. The victim was pronounced DOA at the scene. M.E.’s office to determine the cause of death. Investigation continues.”

On February 6, 2008, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York released its conclusions. Those conclusions were based on an initial autopsy that occurred 23 January 2008 and a subsequent complete toxicological analysis. The report concluded that Ledger died “as the result of acute intoxication by the combined effects of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine”. It added: “We have concluded that the manner of death is accident, resulting from the abuse of prescribed medications.”

In 2017, Jason Payne-James, a forensic pathologist, asserted that Ledger might have survived if hydrocodone and oxycodone had been left out of the combination of drugs that the actor took just prior to his death. He furthermore stated that the mixture of drugs, combined with a possible chest infection, caused Ledger to stop breathing.

Ledger was remembered today from all corners of the world via social media, and trending on Twitter.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt tweeted about Ledger on Wednesday, noting it’s been over 20 years since 10 Things I Hate About You was released. “10 Things I Hate About You” came out today, March 31st, back in 1999. I’ll never forget that summer, making that movie with such wonderful people. The best of times. Still can’t believe it was over 20 years ago.

“Some people find their shtick,” Ledger told the Times. “I’ve never figured out who ‘Heath Ledger’ is on film: ‘This is what you expect when you hire me, and it will be recognizable.’”

He concluded, “People always feel compelled to sum you up, to presume that they have you and can describe you. That’s fine. But there are many stories inside of me and a lot I want to achieve outside of one flat note.”

Rest in power, Mr. Ledger.

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