Heath Ledger dies in NYC

;NEW YORK (AP) – On a day meant for celebration in Hollywood, Heath Ledger, one of film’s bright young stars, was found dead at age 28, his promising career extinguished just as it was reaching full expression.

Hours after the Academy Award nominees were announced, pomp and circumstance gave way to the sad and ugly, as police said the Australian-born actor’s body was found naked in bed in a Manhattan apartment with sleeping pills nearby.

On the same occasion two years ago, Ledger was celebrating his first – and what would be his last – Oscar nomination, for his breakthrough performance as a conflicted, gay cowboy in “Brokeback Mountain.”

“The picture belongs to Ledger, whose downcast gaze and chewed-up words bear almost unbearable testimony to a heart under siege,” wrote New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane.

His next big role was to be a new, darker rendition of the Joker role that Jack Nicholson made famous in “Batman” – a typical leap for the versatile, risk-taking Ledger.

On the “Brokeback” set, Ledger met Michelle Williams, who played his wife in the film. The two had a daughter, now 2-year-old Matilda, and lived together in Brooklyn until they split up last year.

Throughout the film industry, his colleagues expressed sorrow that a real talent had been lost.

Nicole Kidman called it “a terrible tragedy.” Mel Gibson, who played Ledger’s vengeful father in 2000’s “The Patriot,” said, “I had such great hope for him. He was just taking off and to lose his life at such a young age is a tragic loss.”

It wasn’t immediately clear if Ledger had committed suicide. He had an appointment for a massage at the residence in the tony neighborhood of SoHo, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said. A housekeeper who went to let him know the massage therapist had arrived found him dead at 3:26 p.m.

“We are all deeply saddened and shocked by this accident,” Ledger’s publicist, Mara Buxbaum, said in a statement Tuesday night. “This is an extremely difficult time for his loved ones and we are asking the media to please respect the family’s privacy and avoid speculation until the facts are known.”

Ledger was born in 1979 in Perth, in western Australia, to a mining engineer and a French teacher, and got his first acting role playing Peter Pan at age 10 at a local theater company. He began acting in independent films as a 16-year-old in Sydney and played a cyclist hoping to land a spot on an Olympic team in a 1996 television show, “Seat.”

After several independent films, Ledger moved to Los Angeles at age 19 and co-starred opposite Julia Stiles in “10 Things I Hate About You.” Offers for other teen flicks soon came his way, but Ledger turned them down, preferring to remain idle than sign on for projects he didn’t like.

“It wasn’t a hard decision for me,” Ledger told The Associated Press in 2001. “It was hard for everyone else around me to understand. Agents were like, ‘You’re crazy,’ my parents were like, ‘Come on, you have to eat.’ “