Heath Ledger dies of accidental prescription drug overdose - HISTORY
Year
2008

Heath Ledger dies of accidental prescription drug overdose

On this day in 2008, Hollywood mourns a talented young actor’s life cut tragically short, after the body of 28-year-old Heath Ledger is found by his masseuse and housekeeper on the floor of his rented apartment in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City.

Best known for his Academy Award-nominated turn as the closeted gay cowboy Ennis Del Mar in the director Ang Lee’s acclaimed Brokeback Mountain (2005), Ledger was a former child actor from Australia who first became known to American audiences in the 1999 teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You. He later passed up other teen comedies and was rewarded with a big break when he landed the role of Mel Gibson’s son in the Revolutionary War drama The Patriot (2000). After appearing in the well-reviewed Monster’s Ball (2001), Ledger starred in two critical and commercial flops, A Knight’s Tale (2001) and The Four Feathers (2002). He roared back in 2005, with lead roles in no fewer than four films, including Casanova, in which he played the title role.

It was Brokeback Mountain, however, that truly made Ledger a star and earned him comparisons to acting greats such as Marlon Brando. Ledger lost the Best Actor Oscar to Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) but Brokeback Mountain cemented his reputation as an A-list actor and a fixture in the pages of celebrity-obsessed magazines. This last role–which he fulfilled uneasily–was intensified by his relationship with the actress Michelle Williams, whom he met on the set of Brokeback Mountain. The couple had a daughter, Matilda, born in October 2005, and were often photographed in various scenes of domestic bliss. In September 2007, however, Ledger and Williams announced they were separating, and Ledger moved from their house in Brooklyn to the rented SoHo apartment.

Though his personal life might have been in turmoil, Ledger’s professional life was flourishing in the months before his death. Near the end of 2007, he was in London filming Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. In addition to a role as one of several Bob Dylan alter egos in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, he had also recently finished work on The Dark Knight, the latest Batman film, in which Ledger played a younger version of the Joker, the villainous role originated by Jack Nicholson. In interviews that would be scrutinized exhaustively after his death, the actor admitted that the Joker role had been difficult for him and that he had been using prescription drugs to manage recurring bouts of stress and insomnia.

Soon after the masseuse and housekeeper discovered Ledger’s body, emergency crews arrived on the scene but were unable to revive him. Media speculation about his possible illegal drug use intensified over the next two weeks, until on February 8, the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office released the results of toxicology tests performed on Ledger’s body. The report stated that he died of an accidental “abuse of prescription medications” that included commonly known painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs and sleeping pills. After memorial services in New York and Los Angeles, Ledger’s family took his body back to their native Australia; he is buried next to his grandparents, in his hometown of Perth.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Ted Kaczynski pleads guilty to bombings

On this day in 1998, in a Sacramento, California, courtroom, Theodore J. Kaczynski pleads guilty to all federal charges against him, acknowledging his responsibility for a 17-year campaign of package bombings attributed to the “Unabomber.” Born in 1942, Kaczynski attended Harvard ...read more

First Russian Revolution begins

In Russia, the revolution of 1905 begins when czarist troops open fire on a peaceful group of workers marching to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to petition their grievances to Czar Nicholas II. Some 500 protestors were massacred on “Bloody Sunday,” setting off months of ...read more

Sakharov arrested in Moscow

In Moscow, Andrei Dmitriyevich Sakharov, the Soviet physicist who helped build the USSR’s first hydrogen bomb, is arrested after criticizing the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan. He was subsequently stripped of his numerous scientific honors and banished to remote ...read more

Queen Victoria dies

The death of Queen Victoria on January 22, 1901, ends an era in which most of her British subjects know no other monarch. Her 63-year reign, the longest in British history, saw the growth of an empire on which the sun never set. Victoria restored dignity to the English monarchy ...read more

British colonists reach New Zealand

Under the leadership of British statesman Edward G. Wakefield, the first British colonists to New Zealand arrive at Port Nicholson on Auckland Island.In 1642, Dutch navigator Abel Tasman became the first European to discover the South Pacific island group that later became known ...read more

Supreme Court legalizes abortion

In a historic decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Roe v. Wade that women, as part of their constitutional right to privacy, can terminate a pregnancy during its first two trimesters. Only during the last trimester, when the fetus can survive outside the womb, would states ...read more

Lyndon Baines Johnson dies in Texas

On this day in 1973, former President Lyndon Baines Johnson dies in Johnson City, Texas, at the age of 64. After leaving the White House in 1968, L.B.J. returned to his beloved home state, Texas, with his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, and immersed himself in the activity dearest to ...read more

Chief Dull Knife makes last fight for freedom

On this day, pursuing American soldiers badly beat Cheyenne Chief Dull Knife and his people as they make a desperate bid for freedom. In doing so, the soldiers effectively crushed the so-called Dull Knife Outbreak.A leading chief of the Northern Cheyenne, Dull Knife (sometimes ...read more

George Gordon, Lord Byron, is born

Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, is born this day in Aberdeen, Scotland. Despite his later fortune and title, Byron grew up in poverty and was burdened by a clubfoot. At age 10, he inherited his great uncle’s title and became Lord Byron. He attended Harrow, then Trinity ...read more

Plane crashes at Nigerian airport

On this day in 1973, a plane returning Muslim pilgrims from Mecca crashes in Kano, Nigeria, killing 176 people. It was the deadliest air disaster of its time.The Royal Jordanian Boeing 707-300 was chartered by Nigeria Airways to take Muslims in Nigeria on a pilgrimage to Mecca in ...read more

Roe v. Wade

Roe v. Wade was a landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a woman’s legal right to an abortion. The Court ruled, in a 7-2 decision, that a woman’s right to choose an abortion was protected by the privacy rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. ...read more

John McCausland dies

On this day in 1927, Confederate General John A. McCausland dies at age 90 inWest Virginia. He lived for over 50 years after the war and remained an unreconstructed Rebel at the time of his death.Nicknamed “Tiger John,” McCausland was born to Irish immigrants in 1836 in St. ...read more