It was my sophomore year in college when my roommates and I went to see 10 Things I Hate About You. We were all, of course, immediately smitten with Heath Ledger. I think I saw the movie four or five times in the theater and immediately bought the VHS when it came out later that year. It was Ledger’s first Hollywood film and much like his character in the movie, he was this mysterious Australian with a smile that made you smile, an accent that made you blush, long wavy hair you wanted to run your fingers through and just enough mysterious bad boy attitude to make him seem perfect. He drank, he smoked and he looked dangerous.
Patrick Verona certainly wasn’t Ledger’s most acclaimed movie role, but it was the perfect introduction to leave us wanting more of him. And man, did he give it to us. As luck would have it, shortly thereafter he filmed The Patriot on my college campus in Charleston, South Carolina. My friends and I, along with hundreds of other girls, would wait for hours outside the set trying to get a glimpse of him.
From the time he arrived in the US in 1998 to his tragic passing 10 years later, Ledger proved to be more than just a dreamy romantic-comedy heartthrob with perfect hair and an infectious smile. Yes, he played the romantic hero in movies like A Knight’s Tale and Casanova but the role he is probably best known for was gay cowboy Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain. He went on to receive Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for the role.
It was apparently while filming Brokeback that Ledger and Michelle Williams met, fell in love and soon welcomed their daughter, Matilda Rose. They seemed like the perfect little family. Even when their relationship ended, they still managed to seem perfect, somehow emanating how focused they were on co-parenting their daughter.
Ledger protected his personal life fiercely. As he grew more popular, he seemed to become increasingly uneasy with all that came along with fame. But drugs? Ledger was no Lindsay Lohan or Pete Doherty. Sure, he’d talked openly about his battles with insomnia and admitted to taking more than the prescribed amount of Ambien to get some sleep while filming The Dark Knight. But who could have predicted that—on January 22, 2008—he would die from an apparent prescription drug overdose?
Ledger had never appeared to suffer from addiction but as most of us know, the struggle is often silent; what’s more, you don’t have to be an addict to die at the hands of drugs, legal or not. It seems that Ledger’s death was the result of a lethal combination of prescribed medications that overpowered his central nervous system—a tragic and deadly mistake that happens far too often every day. Ultimately, the toxicology report concluded that he died as a result of “acute intoxication by the combined effects of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine.” The death was deemed accidental.
According to the CDC, in 2008 there were 14,800 prescription painkiller deaths in the United States, more than heroin and cocaine combined. Ledger’s death raised awareness of the rise of the prescription drug abuse and its deadly consequences but ultimately did that make a difference? Alas, probably not.
I remember watching the 2009 Oscars when Ledger posthumously won the best supporting actor award for The Dark Knight. It was sobering to see his father, mother and sister accept the award on his behalf of his “beautiful Matlida.” His father spoke of his “quiet determination” and his mother noted his “compassionate and generous soul.”
Ultimately, of course, that determination and compassion couldn’t save him. But at least he was able to leave behind a legacy of his work. It’s a rotten trade but what death from drugs isn’t?