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GONE TOO SOON
"Heath Ledger was a courageous actor, and a great soul," James Schamus, CEO
of Focus Features and producer of Brokeback Mountain said of the
star, who was found dead Jan. 22, 2008, in New York City. A year to the day later, Hollywood echoed that sentiment, honoring the actor with his second Oscar nomination, this time for the Dark Knight.
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The Oscar nod comes just after a Golden Globe win for his role as the psychotic joker in The Dark Knight, the sequel to 2005's
Batman Begins. "It's the most fun I've had with a character and
probably will ever have," Ledger said. For his mother, Sally Bell, the posthumous honor left her "bursting with pride," calling it "such a fantastic and wonderful legacy for his daughter."
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Only 28 at the time of his death, Ledger was already an Oscar-nominated actor for (Brokeback Mountain) – and a father.
Daughter Matilda, with actress Michelle Williams, was born Oct. 28, 2005.
"It's what I've always wanted," the self-proclaimed Mr. Mom said in 2006. "She's just adorable. A beautifully observant, wise little kid."
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CHASING A DREAM
Ledger's rise on the screen started as a teen: At 16, he left his hometown
of Perth, Australia, and headed to Sydney, where he appeared on the Aussie
TV show Sweat and made his feature film debut in Blackrock. He then took the lead in the FOX series Roar(left), a warrior drama that filmed in Queensland and costarred Keri
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Ledger landed his first Hollywood lead in 1999's 10 Things I Hate
About You, opposite Julia Stiles. The teen comedy raked in more than $50
million, but Ledger admitted he was unhappy being labeled a heartthrob. "I
was a young kid from Australia, and that was the only movie someone was
willing to put me in, so what do you do?" he told the Houston
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By the time he starred in 2005's Brokeback Mountain (left),
Ledger had already worked opposite Billy Bob Thornton (Monster's
Ball) and Mel Gibson (The Patriot). In his Oscar-nominated role
of Ennis Del Mar, director Ang Lee gushed to PEOPLE that Ledger's
performance was reminiscent of "a young [Marlon] Brando."
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"I would have been crazy to turn it down," Ledger (with his Brokeback costars Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal) told Entertainment Weekly of breaking barriers in the gay cowboy drama. "Any anxiety toward doing it was manufactured through the industry. It obviously wasn't as big a deal for us, because we did it."
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Ledger (kissing the air vacated by Michelle Williams at the post-Oscars
Governor's Ball) kept a sense of humor despite losing out on Best Actor to
Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2006. He once said, "I think that flattery is just as
dangerous or destructive as criticism. I think it's all one thing."
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On the Brokeback set, Ledger started a three-year romance with
costar Williams, producing a daughter, Matilda. Of an early encounter, he
told Rolling Stone, "On the fifth take, Michelle and I [are] tobogganing down the hill, and Michelle ... twisted her knee –she was pretty much on crutches for the rest of the shoot. And I felt I
always had to look after her after that."
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Ledger (with a radiant Williams at the New York premiere of Brokeback) called meeting the actress the turning point of his career. "I'm so proud," he told Oprah Winfrey in 2006. "I just fall deeper and deeper in love with both my girls."
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Ledger and Williams planted their new family in Brooklyn, where the actor
easily blended with the locals. Ledger, who moved to Manhattan after their
split, was an unassuming fixture in his brownstone neighborhood, often
spotted taking the baby for walks, skateboarding or stopping by local
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Ledger and Williams (at the 2007 Film Independent's Spirit Awards in Santa
Monica) called it quits just five months before his death. "It was rocky for a while," a source told PEOPLE. "They did what they could to make it work." Ledger later became
a regular at New York City nightclubs and was even spotted with model Helena
Christensen, but another source said he was "bummed" about the breakup.
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In September 2007, Ledger traveled to the Venice Film Festival to promote his Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There. Relating to the film, he said: "I feel like I live a kind of gypsy type lifestyle ... struggling with keeping consistency with a family life, a social life and a professional life."
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HARD AT WORK
After the split, Ledger had been working often and had wrapped The Dark Knight. Just days before he was found dead in N.Y.C., he was spotted out in London, where he was
dressed in a clown suit to film Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of
Doctor Parnassus, and in street clothes chatting up the film crew.
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'A TRAGIC LOSS'
"I had such great hope for him," said former costar Mel Gibson, a fellow
Australian. "He was just taking off and to lose his life at such a young age
is a tragic loss."