Heath Ledger, the Australian actor who earned an Academy Award nomination for his turn as a stubbornly taciturn gay ranch hand in Brokeback Mountain, was found dead yesterday in a Manhattan apartment, New York police said. He was 28.
A housekeeper sent to fetch Mr. Ledger for a massage appointment found him naked and unresponsive about 3:30 p.m., NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said. Police sources told The New York Times yesterday that sleeping pills were found near Mr. Ledger's body, leading them to suspect suicide or an accidental overdose as the cause of death.
The medical examiner's office planned an autopsy today, a spokeswoman said.
Tall and angular, with intense brown eyes and an endearingly cocksure manner, Mr. Ledger had emerged in recent years as a rising star in Hollywood. His latest role was as one of a handful of actors playing various incarnations of Bob Dylan in I'm Not There. This summer, he will appear as the Joker in the latest installment of the Batman series, The Dark Knight.
Mr. Ledger was born in 1979 in Perth, in western Australia, to a mining engineer and a French teacher, and got his first acting role playing Peter Pan at age 10 at a local theater company. He began acting in independent films as a 16-year-old in Sydney and played a cyclist hoping to land a spot on an Olympic team in a 1996 TV show, Seat.
Mr. Ledger first came to the attention of American audiences with his role in the short-lived 1997 Fox TV series Roar, playing a young Viking warrior.
"It was my first lead role," Mr. Ledger said in a 2002 Sun interview. "Thank God it didn't get picked up. ... I might still be there."
His big break came in 2000's The Patriot, when he was cast as Gabriel, the recklessly headstrong son of Mel Gibson's Revolutionary War militia leader.
The part, combined with his comedic turn as a frustrated lover in 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You, made him something of a teen heartthrob, a role he was never entirely comfortable with. But it also put him on the Hollywood fast track, and he quickly became a favorite of directors looking for young actors struggling with conflicted emotions that seem beyond their years.
"It was a difficult role to cast because Gabriel's very much a boy, but also a young man, not an adolescent," Patriot producer Dean Devlin told the Los Angeles Times at the time of the film's release. "The tough thing is that a lot of the young actors today, they feel like teenagers. And Heath, even though only 21, feels like a man in his demeanor and conviction. It was really hard to find those qualities in one person, and Heath had them. That's why he's able to capture so many aspects of his character."
Mr. Ledger followed The Patriot with another supporting role, this time as the young Southern deputy unwilling to follow his sheriff father's racist path in Monster's Ball (2001). Although his performance was overshadowed by Halle Berry's Oscar-winning star turn, it cemented his brooding, conflicted reputation.
Appearances in a handful of period dramas followed, including The Four Feathers (2002), as a 19th-century British Colonial soldier fighting in Sudan; Ned Kelly (2003), as a 19th-century Australian outlaw; and The Brothers Grimm (2005), as a con artist and chronicler of folk tales in medieval Europe.
Mr. Ledger seemed like an unlikely candidate to play a closeted homosexual in 2005's Brokeback Mountain. But with co-star Jake Gyllenhaal as his more demonstrative love interest, Mr. Ledger's quiet determination and ability to play to classic Western stereotypes, even while subverting them, helped make a gay love story acceptable to modern audiences.
Mr. Ledger and his Brokeback Mountain co-star, Michelle Williams, began a relationship while the film was being shot. The couple had a daughter, Matilda Rose. They separated last year.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.