Desperate Days and Sleepless Nights: How Heath Ledger 'Unraveled' in His Final Weeks
"He was desperately unhappy, desperately sad," Heath Ledger's friend and voice coach Gerry Grennell tells PEOPLE
Nine years after Heath Ledger’s death, members of his inner circle share memories of his zest for life and his troubled final days. Subscribe now for the emotional new details and never-before-seen photos — only in PEOPLE.
Heath Ledger was a young superstar and father grappling with the pressures of fame and a recent breakup when he retreated to his New York City apartment in January 2008 to try and get some rest and recuperate from an illness he couldn’t shake.
Despite warnings from friends and family about mixing sleeping pills with prescription medications, the 28-year-old Brokeback Mountain star was found dead on Jan. 22 in his apartment. A toxicology report revealed a fatal mix of prescription drugs in his system.
Those close to him paint an intimate portrait of the “very sensitive man” who was struggling in his final weeks — and they share new details about his last days with PEOPLE tied to Spike TV’s I Am Heath Ledger documentary, set to premiere on Spike TV on May 17 following its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 23. (The documentary will also have a special one-night theatrical release on May 3.)
“At some point in time, it unraveled for him,” documentary director Derik Murray tells PEOPLE. “I think it was tough for him to keep up with who he was.”
Gerry Grennell, Ledger’s friend and dialect coach who lived and worked with the star while he was shooting The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus in the final weeks of his life, says the actor was “exhausted, emotionally and physically” while battling a lingering pneumonia-type illness. He took sleeping pills, but a good night’s rest eluded him.
“I would hear him wandering around the apartment and I’d get up and say, ‘Come on, man, get back to bed, you have to work tomorrow,’ ” he recalls. “He said, ‘I can’t sleep, man.’ ”
Grennell says the star’s mood was low.
“He missed his girl, he missed his family, he missed his little girl — he desperately wanted to see her and hold her and play with her,” he says, referring to Ledger’s former girlfriend Michelle Williams and their then-2-year-old daughter, Matilda. “He was desperately unhappy, desperately sad.”
He knew he was spiraling, but Grennell says he couldn’t stop himself from taking the pills.
“He said, ‘I got to stop, it’s not helping, I’m not well, it’s making me feel more upset,’ ” Grennell says. “It wasn’t helping with the relationship issues, it wasn’t helping with missing his kid, it wasn’t helping his sleeping — and he knew that.”
For more on Heath Ledger, including the revealing new documentary about his life and legacy, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Djimon Hounsou, his costar in 2002’s The Four Feathers, says in the documentary that he was taken aback when he saw Ledger not long before his death.
“I ran into him in New York, hadn’t seen him for a couple of years, and [thought], ‘Wow, Heath has this change.’ But the way he has changed kind of got me a little concerned, you know. And I looked at him, I thought, ‘Wow,’ with a bit of a concern, you know?” he says.
While friends and colleagues sensed his desperation, sister Kate Ledger — who often spoke to her famous brother three times a day — tells PEOPLE Heath remained a “happy boy” with her and other family members, and did not project “doom and gloom” in his final weeks.
At the same time, she knew her brother was “struggling” with an illness, and warned him to be careful with his medications a few weeks before his death.
“I just said, ‘You’ve got to be very careful mixing things,’ and he was like, ‘Katie, hello, come on, of course,’ ” she says.
She says their final phone conversation just before his death was upbeat.
“I was cooking dinner … and we were laughing. Then he said, ‘I’ve got to go, and I’ll call you at 8:30 in the morning’ and that was it. That was our last conversation. I said ‘Okay, I love you.’ And that was it. It’s heartbreaking.”
Ledger’s longtime agent and friend Steve Alexander spoke to the actor the night before he died, and like Kate Ledger says the conversation was “light.”
“He was in the supermarket, buying some things for dinner he was making at the apartment that night,” he says. “We had a great chat and it was like, ‘Okay, talk to you in a bit,’ and that was it … he sounded super happy, all good, nothing out of the ordinary.”
Close friend and director Matt Amato tells PEOPLE he spoke to Ledger the day he died, and although he also knew his friend was ill and “overworked,” he still had energy for humor.
“We would communicate on iChat two or three times a day, so the last thing he said was, ‘I’m going out to buy some cigs.’ I said ‘figs.’ We were terrible at puns and we would make that as a running joke — terrible, terrible puns. He said cigs and I said figs and that was it.”
Grennell also says it was obvious that the star was unwell, and he pleaded with his Ledger to accompany him back home to Ireland instead of New York — but Ledger declined. Grennell still wonders what could have been if the star took him up on his offer.
“I said, ‘Come to Dublin, you’re not well,’ ” he recalls. “And he said, ‘No, no, no, I got to go to New York, there’s stuff I need to do.’ … He was contemplating not going, but in the end he did and I’m sad to say — and we’re all sad to say — that’s when everything went and he left us.”