Born Heathcliff Andrew Ledger, April 4, 1979, in Perth, Western Australia, Australia; son of Kim Ledger (an engineer and auto racer) and Sally Bell (a teacher); stepson of Roger Bell; companion of Michelle Williams (an actress); children: Matilda (with Williams).
Addresses: Home —Brooklyn, NY. Contact —c/o Bloom, Hergott, Cook, Diemer … Klein, 150 South Rodeo Dr., 3rd Fr., Beverly Hills, CA 90212.
Actor in films, including: Blackrock , 1997; Paws , 1997; 10 Things I Hate About You , 1999; Two Hands , 1999; The Patriot , 2000; A Knight's Tale , 2001; Monster's Ball , 2001; The Four Feathers , 2002; Ned Kelly , 2003; The Order , 2003; Candy , 2005; Lords of Dogtown , 2005; The Brothers Grimm , 2005; Brokeback Mountain , 2005; Casanova , 2005. Television appearances include: Ship to Shore , 1993; Sweat , 1996; Roar , FOX, 1997; Home and Away , 1997; Bush Patrol ; Corrigan. Stage appearances include: Peter Pan ; The Name of the Father ; Bugsy Malone.
Awards: Blockbuster Entertainment Award for favorite male newcomer, for The Patriot , 2001; Sho-West Award for male star of tomorrow, ShoWest Convention, 2001; New York Film Critics Circle Award for best actor, for Brokeback Mountain , 2005; San Francisco Film Critics Critics Circle Award for best actor, for Brokeback Mountain , 2005.
After beginning his career in television, Australian actor Heath Ledger became an international film star in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He first gained notice in the teen take on William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew , 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You , and as Mel Gibson's son in the 2000 historical drama The Patriot. Ledger went on to appear in consistently challenging and engaging, though not always critically successful, films. Ledger's career reached new heights in 2005 when he played a sexually conflicted cowboy in the controversial, critically acclaimed western love story, Brokeback Mountain.
Born in Australia in 1979, Ledger's was named after the main male character in his mother's favorite book, Wuthering Heights. (Ledger's older sister, Katherine, was also named after a character in the book.) Growing up in a suburb of Perth called Subiaco, Ledger was not particularly focused on academics at Guildford Grammar School. He became a state junior chess champion at the age of ten, around the same time his parents divorced. Sports were a particular interest of his, including hockey, cricket, and racing go-karts.
Around 1991, Ledger first became interested in acting. Though he had appeared as a donkey in a Christmas play as a child, it was not until his sister, Katherine, got him involved with her amateur theater group that he caught the bug. When he was 12 years old, he played the title role in a production of Peter Pan in Perth. By the time he was 13, Ledger's hockey coach made him choose between acting and hockey—he chose acting. Ledger's work in this time period focused on the stage, appearing in amateur productions of Shakespeare's plays, as well as productions such as Bugsy Malone and The Name of the Father. Ledger honed his craft by attending acting workshops and dance classes.
By the time Ledger was in his teens, he moved into roles in television. He dropped out of school after the tenth grade, focusing on his acting career. In addition to guest spots in Australian television series such as Ship to Shore and Corrigan , Ledger had his first starring role in a drama on Australian television: Sweat. The show was set at the Institute of Sport, an academy where elite young athletes trained. Ledger played Snowy Bowles, a homosexual cyclist.
Though Ledger had found some success, he was still unsure if he wanted to act and if he was really good at it. Looking at his performances, Ledger saw how much he had to learn. He told Kate de Brito of the Daily Telegraph , " Sweat was my first recurring gig in front of the camera and basically I had no idea what I was doing. I can remember watching the rushes and thinking 'Oh God.' I didn't know what the camera was doing, I didn't know what I was looking like on the other side. There were so many little technicalities of acting I didn't know." Ledger decided to persevere and worked hard to improve his acting skills.
While still working in his native country, Ledger was given a chance to audition for an American television show that was going to film in Queensland, Australia. He flew to Los Angeles over a weekend and gave what both he and the show's creator, former teen idol Shaun Cassidy, considered a poor audition. Despite this flub, Ledger was cast in the title role of the show, called Roar. In the adventure series set in Celtic Ireland in about 400 A.D., Ledger played Conor, a newly crowned Celtic prince trying to bring his people together in the wake of his family's murder. Conor also had to fight his enemies, the Romans, led by Queen Diana. Though critics often compared the show to the hit Mel Gibson movie Braveheart and found Ledger still raw as an actor, Roar also demonstrated his expanding range.
Roar became a cult hit but it only lasted a season on FOX in 1997. After the show's end, Ledger moved to Los Angeles to pursue his acting career, where he primarily focused on films. He had already appeared in a few films, including his debut in Black-rock in 1997, but the parts were small. Ledger had a much bigger role in his first major Hollywood release, 10 Things I Hate About You , a high school version of Shakepeare's Taming of the Shrew. In the film, Ledger played Patrick Verona, who is a bit mysterious and loner, with the actor's accent kept intact. Patrick is convinced to win over the reluctant, man-repulsing Kat, played by Julia Stiles, so that her younger sister, Bianca, may begin dating a fellow student, Joey Donner. (Kat and Bianca's father has a rule that Bianca cannot date until her older sister has a boyfriend.) 10 Things I Hate About You proved to be a success at the box office in the United States and abroad, and making Ledger an "it" boy of the moment.
While Ledger's primary homebase remained in California, he also appeared in some films shot in Australia. In the 1999 black comedy Two Hands , Ledger played Jimmy, who inadvertently becomes involved in organized crime in Sydney, Australia. While doing an errand for Pando, a crime boss played by Bryan Brown, Jimmy loses the money he is entrusted with delivering, and must repay it. Two Hands was screened at the Sundance Film Festival and led to an American Film Institute award nomination for best actor for Ledger.
Ledger's Jimmy was a tougher role than the parts he was offered in the United States. In that country, many scripts that were sent to him were teen films but Ledger refused to be typecast. He wanted more substantive roles and auditioned while living on his savings. At times, he came close to considering returning home to Australia. Ledger received a huge break when he was cast as Gabriel Martin in the $100 million epic The Patriot. Set during the American Revolutionary War, Ledger's character, Gabriel, is the son of pacifist, played by Mel Gibson. Gabriel joins the army and is captured by the enemy. Ledger found he had much in common with Gibson, who spent much of his life in Australia as well. Ledger was often compared to Gibson in the press and seen as his successor in Hollywood. Reviews praised Ledger's work in the film, which made him a bona fide star.
Ledger continued to appear in solid Hollywood films like 2001's A Knight's Tale , set in fourteenth century Europe. Ledger had the lead in the summertime smash comedy about knights, their jousts, and class conflicts with a jovial tinge. He played William Thatcher, a poor knight's squire who fulfills his long-time goal to become a knight himself by pretending to be a nobleman named Ulrich von Lichtenstein. That same year, Ledger had a small, but pivotal, role in the intense drama, Monster's Ball. He played Sonny Grotowski, the tormented son of a prison guard who kills himself because he cannot be loved by his father.
Most of Ledger's Hollywood output did not have this weight, though the actor did vary his roles. A much heralded remake of the 1939 film The Four Feathers was a box-office failure. In the war adventure flick, he played Harry Feversham, a British army officer in the late nineteenth century. Fever-sham is so afraid of combat that he quits before his group is to leave for a conflict in the Sudan. Fever-sham later changes his mind, disguises himself as an Arab, and helps his friends. Also released without much notice was one of his first serious adult roles in The Order (also known as The Sin Eater ). In this film, Ledger played Father Alex Bernier, a rebel priest. Bernier must deal with a secret order working within the church.
While Ledger continued to take on interesting roles, a number of these films failed to impress critics or sell tickets. He went back to his Australian roots by playing the title role in Ned Kelly , about a well-known nineteenth century, Irish-born Australian. Kelly was put in prison unjustly and later attacked the Australian government. The Brothers Grimm , directed by former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam, received many negative reviews, but had some box office success. The fantasy adventure film played on the name of the famous fairy-tale authors. It features Ledger as Jacob Grimm to co-star Matt Damon's Will. The pair played con men in eighteenth century Germany who visit small villages and claim to get rid of curses and demons. Their con is compromised when they get drawn into a real fight in one village, where young girls have been disappearing.
In the summer of 2005, Ledger appeared in a box office bomb, Lords of Dogtown. Based on the true story of the Z-Boys, legendary skateboarders in the 1970s who played an influential role in the development of that sport as well as extreme sports in general, Ledger had a supporting role as surfing/ skateboard guru Skip Engblom. Engblom owned the Zephyr Surf Shop and was the founder of the Z-Boys team. Later in the year, Ledger had leading roles in two films which proved his mettle as an actor. In Casanova , he played the title role, a fictionalized, breezy comedy based on the legendary lover. The film was a modest art house hit.
Casanova was filmed over several months in Venice, Italy, immediately after completion of what proved to be his most acclaimed role in Brokeback Mountain. Based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx and directed by Ang Lee, the film tells the story of Ennis del Mar, a Wyoming-based ranch hand, who becomes romantically involved with Jack Twist (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), a rodeo rider. The pair begin their affair in 1963, and the film tells the story of how their forbidden love grows over the years, as they meet and marry women, have families, but always return to each other.
While the gay theme proved controversial, Ledger was roundly applauded for his subtle performance of Ennis. Reviewing the film in the Los Angeles Times , Kenneth Turan called Ledger "breathtaking" and noted that "Ledger brings this film alive by going so deeply into his character you wonder if he'll be able to come back. Aside from his small but strong part in Monster's Ball , nothing in the Australian-born Ledger's previous credits prepares us for the power and authenticity of his work here as a la-conic, interior man of the West, a performance so persuasive that Brokeback Mountain could not have succeeded without it. Ennis' pain, his rage, his sense of longing and loss are real for the actor, and that makes them unforgettable for everyone else." In addition to such critical raves, Ledger was also nominated for major acting awards, including a Golden Globe and an Academy Award.
Brokeback Mountain changed Ledger's life in other ways as well. He became involved with the actress who played his film wife, Michelle Williams. While Ledger had dated a number of actresses in the past, including Heather Graham and Naomi Watts, his relationship with Williams became serious. The couple had a daughter, Matilda, at the end of 2005. Ledger's new family became a priority and as he had repeatedly said over the years, if he wanted to do something else, he could easily leave acting behind. Despite Ledger's detachment, the director of The Four Feathers , Shekhar Kapur, believed Ledger's talent was special. He told Alona Wartofsky of the Washington Post , "To be a great actor, what you have other than talent is honesty, and you cannot be afraid of exposing yourself. Heath Ledgeris honest and he's not afraid to reveal himself—and that makes him a great actor."
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— A. Petruso