The Australian-born film actor and former Oscar nominee Heath Ledger was found dead in a New York apartment yesterday in what appeared to be a drugs overdose. He was aged 28 and leaves behind a two-year-old daughter.
As news of his death spread across the internet and through the streets of the SoHo district, where he was found, fans mourned one of the film industry's most cherished and admired new talents. Some had likened him to a young Marlon Brando.
The actor was found inside an apartment on upscale Broome Street in the heart of fashionable SoHo, where he had been staying. Police sources last night indicated that pills were found near the body and that foul play was not suspected. A post mortem will be carried out today.
A police statement confirmed that Ledger's body was discovered at 3.31pm local time. Reports said the body was found when a masseuse arrived for an appointment with the actor. After a housekeeper let her in, both women found Ledger unconscious, naked and face down in his bed. They immediately called emergency services.
Police said that Ledger was pronounced dead at the scene. Broome Street was overflowing with paparazzi, the media and scores of onlookers shortly after dusk when, at around 6pm, an ambulance drew up to remove his body while police struggled to keep the crowd at bay.
Ledger's career soared after the release of Brokeback Mountain, the 2005 Ang Lee film in which he co-starred as a gay cowboy, a widely applauded performance for which he earned his Oscar nomination as Best Actor. The trophy went to Philip Seymour Hoffman, but Ledger was the youngest man to have received the nomination. Mr Lee said Ledger had delivered a "miracle" of acting.
With chiseled looks, Ledger struggled to maintain his privacy from the paparazzi and seemed intent on focusing on his work and eschewing the Hollywood party scene while often extolling the virtues of a quiet life away from the public glare. He had a reputation as a perfectionist rarely satisfied with the performances he turned in.
After filming Brokeback Mountain, Ledger began a relationship with Michelle Williams, who played his wife in the film. The couple, who became engaged, purchased a corner house in a tidy but low-profile neighbourhood of Brooklyn and together had one daughter, Matilda Rose, born in October 2005. However, they split late last year.
The actor's death will throw at least two film projects he was connected to into turmoil. Shooting has only recently finished on a new Batman film, The Dark Knight, in which he plays The Joker. He was also cast in The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus that was due to begin filming in London later this year.
Born in Perth, Australia, Ledger never went to acting school. His television career began on an Australian soap opera set. After moving to Los Angeles aged 19, he was spotted by Mel Gibson, who gave him a starring role in The Patriot. Subsequent films included A Knight's Tale, 10 Things I Hate about You and Casanova.
Tributes poured in from Australia on news of his death. Fellow Australian actor Nicole Kidman said: "What a terrible tragedy. My heart goes out to his family."
The Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd added: "We have lost one of our nation's finest actors in the prime of his life."
A spokesman for the New York Police Department said last night that they "haven't made any determination" regarding the cause of death. Investigators are likely to examine long-running rumours that Ledger had been struggling with depression since his split with Ms Williams, as well as a drug problem.
Oscar nominee's starring roles
4 April 1979: Born in Perth
1989: Parents divorce
1992: Aunt dies of lung cancer
1996: Joins Globe Shakespeare Co, Perth, after leaving school at 16
1997: Stars in Blackrock. Also appears in Home and Away
1999-2003: In 10 Things I Hate About You, and The Patriot (with Mel Gibson), A Knight's Tale
2004: Dates actress Michelle Williams on Brokeback Mountain
2005: The Brothers Grim, Casanova and Brokeback Mountain. He and Williams have a daughter. Alleged scuffles with paparazzi
2006: Oscar nomination
2008: Plays The Joker in Dark Knight, a Batman film, to be released