It’s 10 years since Heath Ledger died an early, unexpected and shocking death. This is the piece I wrote in the hours after the news broke on January 23, 2008. I had actually forgotten that I had interviewed Ledger for ITV Yorkshire, which prompted my producer to call me later and remind me. Perhaps I was in another place, experiencing vicarious grief. Whatever it was, I’d erased the meeting from my mind. I remembered it later and revisited the tape that featured it. Our time together was extremely brief, but I’m glad to have had that time and, all these years later, to recall it – and him. What a loss.
I was halfway through writing another piece when the terrible news broke about the death of young Heath Ledger.
It came via my father, calling from his home in the States. Ledger’s death was headline news all over the country. Even Dad, hardly a follower of the latest young stars, knew how I would react: open-mouthed shock.
The difference between Heath Ledger and so many others who fall by the wayside – Brad Renfro, star of Apt Pupil, died only last week aged 25 – is that he had talent, real talent.
And his death at 28 puts him among those junior icons who never lived to fulfil their promise. The most obvious comparison is James Dean, killed in a car crash in 1955 aged 24. Or River Phoenix, only 23 when he died in 1993.
Their loss to cinema in incalculable. Both were phenomenally talented. Both were on the cusp of truly massive things. Now 28-year-old Ledger joins them in that exclusive club.
Unlike Dean and Phoenix, Heath Ledger wasn’t seen as a wild child. He wasn’t a party animal, a speed freak or, apparently, into drugs. He was, however, a phenomenally talented actor whose work was growing in stature. Brokeback Mountain proved that.
I was invited to meet Ledger in 1997. He was in the UK promoting The Patriot, in which he co-starred as Mel Gibson’s son. I turned down the opportunity because I had the chance to interview another, bigger, star.
Colleagues told me later I had missed out. “He’s very good,” they said. “A smart lad. And he can act. He holds his own against Gibson and comes out of the film with some kudos. Watch out for him.”
Over the next ten years Ledger came to the UK on a variety of projects – Ned Kelly, The Brothers Grimm, Brokeback Mountain – but our paths never crossed. In that time he had grown considerably as a performer. He was a serious-minded young man who put his all into a role. He was often the best thing in a lacklustre movie and, occasionally, brought a touch of greatness to it.
There were the inevitable comparisons with the likes of Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, both of whom enjoyed early success and the rewards it reaped. Yet Ledger always struck me as even smarter than both of them – a hard worker who strove to make the right choices and give of his best.
While still in his mid-20s Ledger distanced himself from the teen idol image that had enveloped him and began seeking out harder-edged work. Movies like Monster’s Ball proved he could handle dark, serious material. His Oscar-nominated turn as a taciturn homosexual cowboy in Ang Lee’s acclaimed Brokeback Mountain elevated him to a new level.
Ledger will be seen in the second Batman remake The Dark Knight as a particularly malevolent Joker. What will happen to Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which Ledger was making at the time of his death, is another matter.
His death brings down an early curtain on a career that was going places. Like his Brokeback co-star Jake Gyllenhaal, Ledger was an exciting, engaging, ever-watchable talent on the screen. He had something. Mel Gibson called it “the unknown factor”.
Perhaps Gibson couldn’t put his finger on it. Maybe Ledger didn’t want to. But he brought magnetism to his acting, just like Dean and, to a lesser extent, Phoenix.
Now he’s gone at the ridiculously young age of 28. And that is something to be shocked about.
Modern cinema doesn’t get many Heath Ledgers. They are rare creatures and they should be regarded as special. Like James Dean, Ledger will be remembered for a handful of movies and make the transformation from actor to icon to myth. A cult will grow, accelerate to full throttle and, eventually, slow down. But it’ll be a while before this tragic episode becomes yesterday’s news.
I wonder how long it will be before New York’s 421 Broome Street becomes a shrine like the Dakota Building. And who will play him when it comes to the inevitable movie…?
Heath Ledger 1979 – 2008