Heath Ledger: Hearing his name conjures up some wonderful movie memories and brings to mind some of the quirky characters that will surely stand the test of time. Unfortunately, it also brings you back to Jan. 22, 2008, when news broke of the Australian actor’s tragic and untimely death.
As we’re about to indulge in his final performance in Terry Gilliam’s fantasy The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, let’s embrace his amazingly prolific, all-too-short career.
Roar (TV series 1997-2000)
The young Aussie landed his first gig in America on television in this Universal-produced, Fox-distributed sword-and-sandals drama about a young Irish chieftain who fought against Roman encroachment. The series vanished after just 13 episodes, but Heath was well on his way to bigger things.
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
A cross between The Taming of the Shrew and Clueless, this teen comedy was a modest success for Disney, thanks in part to Ledger’s scene-stealing performance as Patrick Verona. His portrayal of the romantic outcast gave guys a tangible outsider hero with whom they could identify and gals a new heartthrob to post on their walls. The role earned him a loyal following of fawning teenage girls and mallrat misfits, and he’d leverage that newfound popularity to get into some higher-profile projects
The Patriot (2000)
Ledger followed his comedic Hollywood debut with a major role in Roland Emmerich’s Revolutionary War epic opposite Mel Gibson, then still one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. Playing the ill-fated son of colonial farmer-turned-militia leader required the 21-year-old thesp to ride horseback and flex his dramatic skills; he made it all look easy. This period action film led Heath right into his next film…
A Knight’s Tale (2001)
Venturing even further back in time, Ledger went medieval as a peasant squire who fancies himself a knight. It was his first starring role and it had him working with some tested talent, including Rufus Sewell, Paul Bettany and James Purefoy. The film, however, made only a minor splash at the box office. This pushed Heath back into small films and supporting roles, but he turned in fine performances – often outdoing the films themselves.
Monster’s Ball (2001)
Marc Forster’s haunting tale of redemption was hailed for the performances found within its frames. Halle Berry won an Oscar, Billy Bob Thornton was as good as ever and Heath was fantastic as his son. His heartbreaking turn as a reluctant southern correctional officer at odds with his father led to tragic circumstances and resulted in one of Ledger’s most memorable roles.
Lords of Dogtown (2005)
Even after a few duds in the early part of the decade (The Four Feathers), Heath’s range and talent were recognized by filmmakers and he took time off to work on a number of projects that shot him to the top of the industry in '05. He nostalgically played a SoCal stoner in Catherine Hardwicke’s chronicle of the surf and skateboarding trends that originated in Venice, California, during the 1970s in this fun flick.
The Brothers Grimm (2005)
Heath joined Matt Damon and director Terry Gilliam in this fantasy/comedy about sibling con-men who travel village-to-village pretending to protect townsfolk from enchanted creatures and performing exorcisms. Despite the film getting ignored at the box office, Ledger’s performance as the eccentric younger sibling outshined Damon’s phony stoic elder.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
No one thought a movie about a forbidden and secret relationship between two cowboys would sell to American audiences. The tagline was “Love is a force of nature,” and no one could deny the chemistry that Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal shared. The film broke barriers, won three Academy Awards and scored Heath his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor along with his first hit in years. His performance is wrenching and is the stuff of movie legend.
Heath concluded a storybook year in show business with this lighthearted period romance, starring as the titular fabled lover. Ledger hadn’t been this outright charming since 10 Things, and together with an all-star cast (including Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons and Oliver Platt), he made the film an absolute delight.
I’m Not There (2007)
Heath played one of six characters that defined the life and work of legendary musician Bob Dylan. Ledger's character Robbie is the misogynist who freely leaves behind his wife and kids for a life of women and fame. His screen time is short but his performance, as always, was strong.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Ledger passed away six months before the release of the second entry in Christopher Nolan’s reinvigorated Batman series. Whether or not it would have been the monumental success it became had he lived is irrelevant. He gave us one of the best screen villains of all time, electrifying audiences as the shockingly sadistic Joker and carrying the film to critical acclaim, $1 billion in global gross and a posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
Ledger was in the middle of shooting this fantasy film with his Brothers Grimm director Terry Gilliam when he died. His part was completed by some of the greatest actors of his generation – including Jude Law, Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp – a fitting tribute for a talent who left this world before his time.