On this day in 2008, The Dark Knight, the fifth film in the big-screen Batman series, opens in theaters around the United States, six months after the death of one of its stars, Heath Ledger, who played the Joker. The Dark Knight beat out the previous record-holder, 2007’s Spider-Man 3, to score the then-highest-grossing opening weekend of any movie in history, raking in some $158 million. Ledger, who received an Academy Award nomination for his performance in Brokeback Mountain (2005), died at age 28 from an accidental prescription-drug overdose on January 22, 2008.
Heath Ledger was born April 4, 1979, in Perth, Australia, and as a teenager acted in Australian television shows and films. His first Hollywood hit was 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), which was followed by roles in such films as The Patriot (2000), Monster’s Ball (2000), A Knight’s Tale (2001), The Four Feathers (2002), Ned Kelly (2003) and The Brothers Grimm (2003). Ledger received numerous accolades, including a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance in Brokeback Mountain, in which he played Wyoming ranch hand Ennis Del Mar, who has a homosexual affair with rodeo rider Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal). Following the success of Brokeback Mountain, Ledger went on to play one of several incarnations of the music icon Bob Dylan in 2007’s I’m Not There.
The Dark Knight, which (like its immediate predecessor, Batman Begins) was directed by Christopher Nolan and starred Christian Bale in the title role, was in post-production when Ledger was found dead at his New York City apartment. Intense media speculation followed his death, which was later ruled accidental. The Dark Knight marked Ledger’s first appearance as the Joker, Batman’s maniacal nemesis. Reviews of Ledger’s performance were almost universally excellent, and buzz began about a possible posthumous Oscar nomination. Jack Nicholson played the character in 1989’s Batman, the first installment in the modern film series, which starred Michael Keaton as the masked crime fighter.
At the time of his death, Ledger was in the midst of filming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which was co-written and directed by Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). Shut down for two months, production on the film was finally completed when three other actors played variations on Ledger’s character. It was later reported that the three actors–Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell–would donate their pay from the film to Ledger’s young daughter, Matilda, who had not yet been included in her father’s will (which left his estate to his parents and sisters) at the time of his death. Matilda’s mother is the actress Michelle Williams, Ledger’s co-star in Brokeback Mountain and his fiancée from 2004 to 2007.
In September 2008, Ledger’s father announced the family had decided to donate Heath’s entire estate to Matilda.