"I love acting. Oh, God, I love it. But all this fame and attention " Heath Ledger once said. "I'm not supernatural. I've done nothing extremely special to deserve the position. It happens every couple of years, and it's happened to hundreds of people before me."
Despite his self-deprecating declarations, the truth is Heath was more than a bit special. Disarmingly friendly and with a charismatic screen presence, the muscular Aussie had a stubbornly non-conformist edge that endeared him to his fans.
Named after the brooding hero of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff Andrew Ledger was born in Perth, Australia, on April 4, 1979, to Kim, a mining engineer and racing enthusiast, and French teacher Emma. His parents divorced when Heath was ten, but the youngster was remarkably unaffected by the split. "The point I got to very quickly after my parents\' divorce," he explained, "was to realise they were just human."
While still at school, and encouraged by his older sister Catherine, Heath developed his stage craft with the Globe Shakespeare company in Perth. His skills were not limited just to acting, though. He was also a talented sportsman played on the school hockey team and persuaded fellow pupils at Guildford Boy\'s Grammar School to enter a national dance competition, going on to lead them to victory as the first all-male group to win the event.
Leaving school at 16, Heath soon revealed the determination that served him so well in his career, when he set off on the 2,600-mile journey to Sydney in search of fame and fortune.
There, he made his movie debut in 1997's Blackrock. This led to a groundbreaking role as Australian TV's first young gay character - Olympic hopeful 'Snowy Bowles' in the series Sweat. Heath's choice of taxing roles was typical of his career, as was the self-criticism which led him to declare himself "hopeless" in the role.
Fortunately casting directors were not of the same opinion and more roles quickly followed, including an appearance on Aussie soap Home And Away. Following his growing success Down Under the actor decided to try his chances in America, where he was soon appearing in the cult TV drama Roar.
A leading role in 1999 teen flick 10 Things I Hate About You resulted in a deluge of offers to appear in similar roles, but the 6ft 1in newcomer was having none of it. "I had a year where I sat around on my butt and declined generous offers to do more teen movies and more of the same characters as the one from 10 Things," he said. "I was literally living off instant noodles and water, just because I was sticking to my guns. It was very hard because they offer you so much money."
A year later Heath was back on the big screen, opposite fellow Aussie Mel Gibson in The Patriot. The electric father-son pairing was nearly never-to-be, however, as the young star walked out of the audition after fluffing his lines. Fortunately the casting agents were undeterred and called him back for a second audition. The young Antipodean stood out from 200 other hopefuls and landed the role.
Then in 2005 came Brokeback Mountain, the triple-Oscar-winning movie that would change Heath's life completely. His role in the gay cowboy flick gave him the opportunity to share the screen with another of the industry's hottest young talents, Jake Gyllenhaal. But most significantly, on set he met co-star Michelle Williams, and embarked on a three-year relationship with the actress, with whom he has a daughter, Matilda, born on October 28, 2005.
Although he and Michelle split in September 2007, the young actor seemed to have the world at his feet when, on January 23, 2008, fans across the globe were shocked by the news of his death, drawing tributes from fellow actors. "I had such great hope for him," said Mel Gibson. "He was just taking off, and to lose his life at such a young age is a tragic loss." In 2009, Heath's acclaimed portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight earned him a posthumous Golden Globe supporting actor award, and an Oscar in the same category.