Over a wildly eclectic 15-year movie career, Heath Ledger rose from relative obscurity in Australia to become one of the finest actors of his generation. Disappearing into many of his roles -- he could do glamorous, menacing and abject with equal ease and could flawlessly pull off American and British accents -- the actor never appeared content to rest on his professional laurels. "I don't really like to do one thing twice," Ledger told The Times in 2005.
"10 Things I Hate About You" (1999)
Appearing as a love-struck high schooler in this teen comic adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" (featuring Julia Styles as Ledger's romantic foil) cemented the then-20-year-old actor's reputation as a Hollywood hunk. It also became the first role he decided to actively fashion his image against; Ledger forswore any involvement with other teen movies after its release.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, January 25, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Heath Ledger films: The Heath Ledger filmography in Thursday's Calendar misspelled the last name of actress Julia Stiles as Styles.
"The Patriot" (2000)
Selected from a pool of 500 hopefuls to play Mel Gibson's hard-charging soldier son in this historical thriller set during the Revolutionary War, the movie represented Ledger's big break, establishing his action hero bona fides and ability to hold the screen. "The Patriot" opened the door for subsequent swashbuckling film roles as a knight ("A Knight's Tale"), a Victorian Age soldier ("The Four Feathers") and a cowboy outlaw ("Ned Kelly").
To hear him tell it, portraying history's most infamous Lothario in director Lasse Hallstrom's biopic sex farce wasn't particularly hard work. "It was basically a working holiday," Ledger told The Times in 2005. "I understood early there was no pressure to accurately portray the character. We were not taking ourselves seriously. We were not taking the movie-making seriously."
"Brokeback Mountain" (2005)
Ledger earned a lead actor Oscar nomination for his iconic portrayal of a gay cowboy -- a tortured soul struggling against his romantic yearnings for another ranch hand (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) in 1960s Wyoming. "He's always battling his genetic structure," Ledger said of the character. "He was battling the traditions and morals and fears and beliefs that had been passed down to him, and they've been embedded in him so deeply, he couldn't get past them." "Brokeback" producer James Schamus remarked of Ledger: "He's the combination of two things that you rarely find together. One is incredible skill as an actor, and the other thing is incredible vulnerability."
Looking pasty and emaciated in this low-budget Australian indie, Ledger plays a junkie traveling a downward spiral of self-destruction and codependency with his drug-addicted girlfriend (Abbie Cornish). "It's a love story between two heroin addicts," Ledger said. "I knocked myself out quite physically. See that scar there? From beating myself in the head."
"I'm Not There" (2007)
The actor is one of six (Cate Blanchett and Richard Gere among others) who portray Bob Dylan in writer-director Todd Haynes' unconventional biopic. Ledger's incarnation, "Robbie," presents the folk-rock icon -- presented as a painter-turned-actor in the segment -- trying to balance his celebrity self-absorption with his family life. Never mind that Ledger admitted to being fairly ignorant of Dylan and his music before filming began.
"The Dark Knight" (2008)
Ledger said playing Batman's mass-murdering, makeup-smeared arch-nemesis the Joker was the "most fun" he'd ever had with a character, citing Sid Vicious and "A Clockwork Orange" as reference points. The last film Ledger completed before his death also proved to be an exhausting experience, however. The actor complained of not being able to sleep during its production and alternately of working so hard, he was unable to talk or move after some days on the set.
Times staff writer Rachel Abramowitz contributed to this report.