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.
“I think that she provides such a wonderful environment for Matilda to grow up in, especially in the sort of industry that she’s in,” Heath’s sister Kate Ledger tells PEOPLE for this week’s cover story in advance of the upcoming Spike TV documentary I Am Heath Ledger, which is 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.)
Matilda was only 2 years old when Ledger, 28, died of an accidental overdose inside his Manhattan apartment on Jan. 22, 2008. Although Williams has said “it just won’t ever be right” for Matilda to grow up without her dad, his friends and family praise the Manchester by the Sea star for her strength as a mom.
“The way she’s been an incredible mother, she has hero status all across the board,” says Ledger’s close friend Matt Amato, who, along with producer Sara Cline, co-founded the music and film company The Masses with Ledger.
Kate Ledger praises Michelle as “really grounded and down to earth,” and says the similarities between her niece and her late brother are striking.
“When [Matilda] picks up her pencil, it reminds me of Heath; when she walks, it reminds me of Heath; when she gets on her skateboard, it reminds me of Heath,” she says. “I tell her about her daddy every time we see each other. I tell her little stories of him growing up and how he used to chase me with the cricket bat.”
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And Kate says Matilda has evolved from a little girl who looked like “Heath in pigtails” to an 11-year-old who exquisitely resembles both parents.
“As she is growing older, she’s got more of her beautiful mama in her too,” she says. “I can really see the parts of Michelle coming through, but she certainly physically looks a lot like Heath.”
Kate and Ledger’s friends also recall the happy family time the trio spent together at their townhouse in Brooklyn, a period childhood friend Kane Manera says was “the closest he had become to being sort of conventional.”
Williams recently told WSJ Magazine that she was “inconsolable” when she moved out of the home after his death (they had split four months earlier) “because I felt, ‘How will he be able to find us?’ ”
She also told the magazine she’s currently focused on parenthood instead of relationships, and she has declined to travel for work for the past five years so her daughter can have more stability.
“Everyone told me to travel while [Matilda’s] young, but they hit a certain age, and they want a life,” she said “So we’re stuck – in a good place. There’s a lot of constancy. She’s in such a good place that I don’t worry about the stability of our unit when I have to go back to work.”
Friends say The Dark Knight Oscar winner was a natural father, who instinctively knew what to do when his daughter was born.
“I’ve never seen anyone be so cohesive around their child,” Manera says. “The shape of his body changed. He became warmer — it was like he would stand in a way with Matilda that you knew they were linked.”
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Now, those closest to the late star hope the new documentary will be a final gift from father to daughter.
“It’s almost like he had actually filmed the documentary himself and pieced it together for her,” Kate says.