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Heath Ledger, 1979-2008

NEW YORK — Heath Ledger was found dead today at a downtown Manhattan apartment, and police said drugs may have been a factor. The Australian-born actor was 28. Police said Ledger was naked in his bed with an unknown number of sleeping pills near the body.

Ledger had an appointment for a massage at a residence in the tony SoHo neighborhood, 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.

A large crowd of paparazzi and gawkers began gathering this evening outside the building on an upscale block, where several police officers guarded the door. The medical examiner’s office planned an autopsy on Wednesday, spokeswoman Ellen Borakove said.

The New York Times had earlier reported that the apartment belonged to actress Mary-Kate Olsen. However, a representative of Ms. Olsen reported this afternoon that the apartment did not belong to the actress. “It is not her apartment,” the representative, Annette Wolf, a publicist for Ms. Olsen, told the Times. “She does not own the apartment. She has never owned the apartment. She and her sister have an apartment in New York City but they are not in this building.”

While not a marquee movie star, Ledger was a respected, award-winning actor who took his craft seriously rather than cashing in on his heartthrob looks. He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as a gay cowboy in “Brokeback Mountain,” where he met Michelle Williams, who played his wife in the film. The two had a daughter, Matilda, and lived together in Brooklyn until they split up last year.

Ledger most recently appeared in “I'm Not There,” in which he played one of the many incarnations of Bob Dylan — as did Cate Blanchett, whose performance in that film earned an Oscar nomination this momrning for best supporting actress.

Ledger had finished filming his role as the Joker this year in “The Dark Knight,” a sequel (partly filmed in Chicago) to 2005’s “Batman Begins.”

He’s had starring roles in “A Knight’s Tale” and “The Patriot,” and played the suicidal son of Billy Bob Thornton in “Monster’s Ball.” He also played a heroin addict in the 2006 Australian film “Candy.”

Before settling down with Williams, Ledger had relationships with actresses Heather Graham and Naomi Watts. He met Watts while working on “Lords of Dogtown,” a fictionalized version of a cult classic skateboarding documentary, in 2004.

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,” a teen comedy reworking of “The Taming of the Shrew.” His movie career caught on soon after that, culminating with his Academy Award nomination for “Brokeback Mountain.”

“Dark Knight” director Christopher Nolan said earlier this month that Ledger’s performance as the Joker would be wildly different than Jack Nicholson’s memorable turn in 1989’s “Batman.”

“It was a very great challenge for Heath,” Nolan had said. “He’s extremely original, extremely frightening, tremendously edgy. A very young character, a very anarchic presence that taps into a lot of our basic fears and panic.”

Associated Press Sara Kugler contributed to this report.

* * * *

A Heath Ledger photo gallery at the Chicago Sun-Times:

http://tinyurl.com/254rxd

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