NEW YORK—The death of 28-year-old Heath Ledger, hailed as one of the great hopes among his generation of actors, was a brutal shock for Hollywood on Tuesday and grimly ended any hope that the day would be a simple celebration of this year's Oscar nominations.
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The Australia native was discovered nude and face-down on the bedroom floor of his Soho apartment, according to New York Police Department spokesman Paul J. Browne, who said that foul play was not suspected and that it was too early to determine a cause of death. Browne said that a bottle of prescription sleeping pills was found in the room. An autopsy was planned for today.
"I had such great hope for him," said actor and filmmaker Mel Gibson, who cast Ledger in the 2000 movie "The Patriot." "He was just taking off, and to lose his life at such a young age is a tragic loss."
Ledger was nominated for the best actor Oscar in 2006 for his work in "Brokeback Mountain," which followed the complex and tortured 20-year romance of a ranch hand and a rodeo cowboy.
The portrayal of the secret male relationship earned critical raves for Ledger and made him an instant icon in the gay community, according to Neil G. Giuliano, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "Heath Ledger will forever be remembered for his groundbreaking role as Ennis del Mar," Giuliano said in a statement. "His powerful portrayal changed hearts and minds in immeasurable ways. He will be greatly missed."
Ledger was in London last week filming "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," a Terry Gilliam movie. The actor also recently finished filming "The Dark Knight," the new Batman film opening July 18, which has him following in the on-screen footsteps of Jack Nicholson as the Joker.
It was a difficult and physical role for Ledger, who told the New York Times in November that he was having trouble sleeping as he was finishing the shoot: "Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night," he said at the time. "I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going." He also described taking two Ambien sleeping pills and falling into a stupor, then waking up an hour later.
That same month, in a videotaped junket interview with The Envelope, the Los Angeles Times' awards-show website, Ledger was clearly slurring and unfocused as he discussed his role in "I'm Not There," a film refracting Bob Dylan's life.
In a 2005 L.A. Times interview, Ledger said his art came from a place of discomfort: "I like to do something I fear. I like to set up obstacles and defeat them. I like to be afraid of the project. I always am. When I get cast in something, I always believe I shouldn't have been cast. I fooled them again. I can't do it. I don't know how to do it. There's a huge amount of anxiety that drowns out any excitement I have toward the project."
It was on the set of "Brokeback" that Ledger met Michelle Williams, who portrayed his on-screen wife. The two were engaged when their daughter, Matilda, was born in October 2005. The pair separated in September.
Heathcliff Andrew Ledger was born April 4, 1979, in Perth, and he and his sister were named after characters in the Emily Bronte classic "Wuthering Heights."
After scratching out a career in Australia he came to the United States and first caught the eye of moviegoers as the handsome star of the 1999 romantic comedy "10 Things I Hate About You." After that, he resisted the Hollywood tug to take on traditional leading-man roles and instead sought out challenging fare such as "Candy," the 2006 film in which he played a junkie poet. He seemed poised for a career that could veer from art-house projects to popcorn movies.
In Hollywood his reputation was for a harsh perfectionism with himself and treating others with a breezy, engaging enthusiasm.
"I am just shocked," director Lasse Hallstrom, who worked with Ledger on the 2005 film "Casanova," said. "He was a wonderful talent and smart. . . . He was an old soul."
That was echoed by James Schamus, chief executive of Focus Features, which produced "Brokeback": "He gave us the gift of sharing his fearless and beautiful love -- of his craft, and of all who worked with him -- for which all of us will be eternally grateful."
Browne, the NYPD spokesman, said Ledger had a 3 p.m. appointment for a massage, and, after he didn't answer the door, his body was found by the masseuse and a housekeeper.
Minutes after the news of Ledger's death broke, several hundred people gathered outside the Broome Street apartment building where Ledger had been living for about five months. Some neighbors grew emotional as television crews and area residents were joined by fans, including some Brooklyn acting students.
"It's sort of like James Dean died in this age," said Daniel Lonsbury, 18, referring to the 24-year-old actor killed in a 1955 auto crash. John Payne, 20, added that he felt like he "grew up" with Ledger.
The website TMZ.com quoted an unnamed relative stating that Ledger had had pneumonia. The site also said Ledger's family was distraught over suicide reports. Police officials said no suicide note was found in Ledger's loft apartment.
Ledger's death follows that last week of actor Brad Renfro, 25, who had a history of drug abuse, and the hospitalization last summer of actor Owen Wilson, 39, after police responded to his Santa Monica home for a report of a suicide attempt.
The breathless nature of the celebrity news coverage has left many fans jaded. Kathleen Reeves, 23, was one of those who gathered on the Soho sidewalk and was surprised by her own reaction. "Usually, when a celebrity dies, I think it's so foolish the way people react," said Reeves, who works a block away. "But right now, I'm so upset. I felt like I knew him. Clearly I didn't."
Times staff writers Rachel Abramowitz, Susan King and Robert W. Welkos contributed to this report.