“He had uncontrollable energy. He buzzed. He would jump out of bed. For as long as I’d known him, he’d had bouts with insomnia. He just had too much energy. His mind was turning, turning, turning—always turning.” Inspired by his older sister’s foray into acting, Heathcliff Andrew Ledger was born on April 4, 1979 in Perth, Western Australia where his endless energy and astounding creativity were inspired by afternoons spent watching his favorite performer, Gene Kelly. Studying Kelly’s every move and then endlessly questioning his sister, Kate, as she pursued a career as an actress and publicist, Ledger was anxious to leave the family business—the Ledger Engineering Foundry—behind and took his high school exams a year early before setting off across country to launch his acting career in Australia.
Only returning to Perth to appear in a two-part television series titled Clowning Around in 1992 and again in Sweat in 1996, Ledger spent the time in between learning the tricks of the trade as his anxious energy fueled an incredible work ethic. Over four years, he starred in series like Ship to Shore, Roar, and Home and Away before making his film debut in the Australian flick, Blackrock, in 1997. Although the film was a huge cliché compared to American standards, it was enough to get Ledger noticed as he auditioned for and won the starring role in the Australian crime thriller, Two Hands, in 1999. By then, he’d set his sights on Hollywood and made the move to Los Angeles where he caught a huge break when he was cast opposite Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You.
Hating the idea that he was only cast for his good looks, Ledger did everything possible to break free of being typecast as a teen heartthrob and gave a stellar performance alongside Mel Gibson in the 2000 historical fiction film, The Patriot. Using inconsistency as his mantra, Ledger spent the next few years jumping across genres as he took on a variety of roles to prove his wide range of talents with credits in Monster’s Ball, A Knight’s Tale, The Brothers Grimm, Casanova, The Order, Lords of Dogtown and The Four Feathers. Before long, his reputation as a young star dedicated to his craft preceded him as he wowed audiences and critics alike with his performance as a Wyoming ranch hand in Brokeback Mountain in 2005. His on-screen love affair with Jake Gyllenhaal was widely praised and earned the 26-year-old Ledger a Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination for best actor as he took home the New York Film Critics Circle Award and the San Francisco Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor of the Year.
Amid his incredible success on the silver screen, Ledger’s personal life also blossomed after he met and fell in love with actress Michelle Williams on the set of Brokeback Mountain. Feeling an instant connection, the two were inseparable over the next few years as they welcomed their daughter, Matilda Rose, into the world on October 28, 2005. “The first six weeks of our daughter Matilda’s life was this incredibly insular, protected time,” Williams said of parenting with Ledger. “It was just he and I and her, living in our new house in Brooklyn. No nanny, no help—not really even any family. A couple of friends came through, but we were really committed to forming a bond just between the tree of us. And then that bubble got broken with work. Brokeback Mountain was going to come out, and the press stuff started rearing up. But those six weeks were just blissful.”
On the heels of Brokeback Mountain and fatherhood, Ledger proved he was far bigger than Hollywood when he gave a jaw-dropping and award-winning performance in the 2006 Australian romantic drama, Candy. He returned to Hollywood the following year as a new member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences before teaming up with Richard Gere, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale for I’m Not There, a musical drama following the life of Bob Dylan. Shortly after the film’s release, Ledger reunited with Bale for what would be the last time when he was cast as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s newest Batman film, The Dark Knight.
Giving every ounce of himself in his performance as the “mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown,” Ledger’s interest in directing grew as he worked on a handful of music videos and started collaborating on what would’ve been his directorial debut, The Queen’s Gambit. Sadly, Ledger never saw The Dark Knight, The Queen’s Gambit or his final film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, come to life because, on January 22, 2008, the 28-year-old died of an overdose on prescription painkillers after years of suffering insomnia caused by his endless energy. Months later, The Dark Knight became a box office success with Ledger earning an Academy Award and a Golden Globe posthumously for his work.
In the years since his death, rumors have run wild about Ledger’s mental health with many arguing that his role as the Joker was too much for him to take on; however, his sisters have finally come forward to dispel the rumors with the release of their documentary, I Am Heath Ledger. Featuring snippets from Ledger’s archives of homemade videos, the documentary opens with Ledger looking into the camera saying, “We’re going to go on a mission right now. Will you come with me?” For Ledger’s family, friends and fans, the answer will always be a resounding, “Yes.”
“For us, it was a lot about showing the world what they didn’t know about him,” Ledger’s sisters said of the project. “Obviously he was such a prominent actor and everyone knew that side of him already… but we knew the photographer, the father. He was such a filmmaker. He was such a creator of everything. It was really important to us to be able to show more than just his celebrity. Because he was really not a celebrity. In his eyes, he really wasn’t. He wanted that to come through.”
The documentary did great justice in showing Ledger’s personal side and the legacy he left behind as an actor, filmmaker and father. It also left a poignant reminder of the man who once said, “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.” We can only imagine the incredible stories that were buried with the legend on January 22, 2008.