The Devastating Death of Heath Ledger

Ledger's death remains one of the defining stories of our generation, though its place in the zeitgeist has evolved in the past decade and a half.

The passing of actor Heath Ledger has become one of the most infamous Hollywood tragedies of the generation, and with good reason. Ledger was an unparalleled talent, and was clearly beloved by many of his colleagues as well. Here's a look back at Ledger's passing and how it still echoes in the pop culture zeitgeist to this day.

Ledger was born in Perth, Western Australia on April 4, 1979, the son of a teacher and a mining engineer. Ledger's family was wealthy and respected, but his parents separated when he was 10 years old. Ledger has one older sister and two half-sisters – one from each of his parents' second marriages. Ledger began acting in school plays as a child, and he set out to become a professional actor as soon as possible. He sat for his exams early and graduated school at age 16, according to a profile by Rolling Stone.

Ledger scored some TV roles in the early 1990s, and gradually picked up more and more work in Hollywood as he rose to prominence. Fans are familiar with the roles that helped Ledger become a household name – 10 Things I Hate About You, A Knight's Tale, The Brothers Grimm and so on. Of course, the role that really earned Ledger credit as a serious artist was Brokeback Mountain, where he and Jake Gyllenhaal played two Wyoming ranch hands pursuing a confused secret romance. However, that role also brought his contentious relationship with the press to a boiling point, which contributes to the public perception of his death to this day.

Now a firmly-established A-lister, Ledger took a role as the Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Ledger worked obsessively on the performance, and told an interview from The New York Times that it was exacerbating his insomnia. He mentioned taking two Ambien pills to try and sleep – an ominous sign of his alleged drug abuse and the narrative it would spawn.
While The Dark Knight was in post-production, Ledger began filming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, where he reportedly got very sick. His co-star Christopher Plummer would later tell PEOPLE: "We all caught colds because we were shooting outside on horrible, damp nights. But Heath's went on and I don't think he dealt with it immediately with the antibiotics.... I think what he did have was the walking pneumonia... He was saying all the time, 'dammit, I can't sleep'... and he was taking all these pills to help him."

Ledger was found dead at his home in Manhattan on Jan 22, 2008 by his housekeeper and his massage therapist. He was lying facedown in his bed, naked, and was not breathing when they arrived. Ledger's toxicology report showed the drugs oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine all in his system. While all of these might have been prescribed individually to treat his illness and his issues like insomnia and anxiety, experts agreed that no doctor would prescribe all of them at once. Ledger's extreme illness was also listed as a contributing factor to his death.

Afterward, Ledger's death became a flashpoint in the discourse about prescription drug abuse in the U.S. – particularly with the opioids hydrocodone and oxycodone in his autopsy. Many outlets also dredged up previous mentions of the actor's substance abuse habits, including one 2006 interview where Ledger claimed he "used to smoke five joints a day for 20 years." However, Ledger's publicist told ABC News at the time that the narrative about Ledger's drug use had been inaccurate in the wake of his death.

The Dark Knight was released about six months after Ledger's death, earning him a posthumous Academy Award for best actor and a Golden Globe. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was adapted to work with the existing footage of Ledger, and was his last film ever released. The actor has become an icon over the years and has been invoked by his peers. To the masses, he is often held up as a symbol of talent burning too bright, and of potential snuffed out by illness. Ledger was laid to rest back home in Perth at the Fremantle Cemetery.