It’s been five months since Heath Ledger‘s shocking death at age 28. But the young actor was still very much on the minds of his colleagues at Thursday night’s Australians in Film 2008 Breakthrough Awards in Beverly Hills.
The emotional highlight of the evening came when Gregor Jordan – who became good friends with Ledger after directing him in 1999’s Two Hands – announced the formation of a Heath Ledger scholarship fund to help struggling Australian actors.
Long before the success of Brokeback Mountain, the director recalled, Ledger was just “your old, broke Aussie actor.” Once, things got so bad, in fact, Jordan said he had to loan his friend a few hundred bucks.
“The first thing he does with the money is go into a bar and buy everyone … a round of drinks,” remembered Jordan, who also worked with Ledger on Ned Kelly. “It is that generosity that somehow sums Heath up. When he had nothing, he still found a way to give to others.”
A Generous Heart
While details of the scholarship are still “a little sketchy,” Jordan admitted, the plan is to select one young Australian actor each year and give him or her the chance to “crack it” in Hollywood. (The first scholarship is due to be awarded in 2009.)
“It’s going to involve a number of benefactors and there’s been a lot of interest already,” the director explained. His voice cracking with emotion, he added: “I was talking to Michelle Williams, his partner and the mother of his child, today and Michelle has said she would be very proud and happy to be the first benefactor.”
At that pronouncement, the crowd erupted in loud applause.
Although Ledger’s father, Kim, could not attend, he did ask for a letter to be read aloud. “We know that Heath would be proud of his attachment to this scholarship,” wrote the surviving Ledger. “[It] does what Heath has done personally during the last 10 years …, [supporting] Australian actors, singers, directors or writers who seek to supply their talents to the U.S.A.”
One of the night’s honorees, Abbie Cornish, also paid tribute to Ledger, her costar in 2006’s Candy. “Heath’s a magical guy,” she told PEOPLE. “Really incredible in every way – as a human being and as an artist.”
• Reporting by BETH PERRY and MARY MARGARET
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