Heath Ledger's performance in "Brokeback Mountain" revealed a major talent with a hunger for emotional truth.
Ledger was found dead Tuesday afternoon in a Manhattan apartment. New York City police said a housekeeper and a masseuse discovered Ledger's naked body near a bed, with prescription sleeping pills beside him. He was 28.
Police said they did not suspect foul play. There was no sign that Ledger had been drinking, and no illegal drugs were found at the SoHo apartment, which he was renting, police said. They said there was no obvious indication of suicide, such as a note. An autopsy was inconclusive.
It was a grim end to a richly promising career. Ledger, who most recently played a film star spiraling out of control in the impressionistic Bob Dylan reverie "I'm Not There," brought a fierce yet subtle quality to every portrayal. He was no stranger to dark shadows, having played Billy Bob Thornton's suicidal son in "Monster's Ball" and a manic heroin addict in "Candy," a small, harsh independent picture made two years ago in his native Australia.
Last year the actor had completed principal photography, mostly in Chicago, on "The Dark Knight," director Christopher Nolan's sequel to "Batman Begins." Ledger plays the Joker in the movie, due in theaters this summer.
"It was a very great challenge for Heath," Nolan told an interviewer earlier this month. "He's extremely original, extremely frightening, tremendously edgy."
Last year Ledger told The New York Times that he "stressed out a little too much" while filming "I'm Not There," and had problems sleeping while portraying the Joker, whom he called a "psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy."
"Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night," the actor said in that 2007 interview. "I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going."
When images of Ledger as the Joker emerged last year, fans were ecstatic. Now his death is sure to lend his farewell picture a ghostly aura.
Perhaps not since James Dean's demise in 1955 before the release of "Giant" has the death of a talented screen star in his 20s cast such a pall over a film's imminent release.
Ledger's death came two years and nearly three months after the birth of his daughter, Matilda, with actress Michelle Williams, his "Brokeback" co-star. Ledger and Williams separated last year.
Ledger had a way of diving straight into the most complicated paradoxes afforded by a role. Yet he was subtle, more determined to slip into a character's skin than he was interested in showboating.
Even in the puffball Shakespearean update "10 Things I Hate About You," made when Ledger was 20, the actor made the arrogant hunk based on "The Taming of the Shrew" character Petruchio easygoing and likable in his arrogance.
Six years later, the 2005 release of "Brokeback Mountain," a love story about two bisexual ranchhands, announced the arrival of a first-rate actor. Ledger was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor for his role.
Jake Gyllenhaal had the film's most quoted and parodied line "I wish I knew how to quit you!" but Ledger's performance as Ennis Del Mar spoke volumes, even in silent torment.
The film wouldn't have been half as strong without Ledger. Delivering his lines in a tight-lipped drawl, the actor made Ennis heartbreaking in his guarded joy and buried sorrow.