Secrets We Discovered About Heath Ledger After His Death

Hollywood obituaries are always tinged with sadness, but few have been as uniquely devastating to the public as Heath Ledger's. Ledger, who was found dead in his New York City apartment on January 22nd, 2008 of accidental overdose, was just 29 when he passed, and the world was his proverbial oyster. Not only was he a new parent to his daughter Matilda (with Brokeback Mountain co-star Michelle Williams), but he was also at the top of his career, turning in celebrated performances in films like Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight.

The days, months, and years that have followed Ledger's passing have brought many aspects of his life to public light as friends and family try to help fans understand the circumstances of his personal life which led to his untimely death. Here's what we've learned about the talented Australian actor since he left this world far too soon.

He had a confusing relationship with Mary-Kate Olsen

Ledger's body was initially discovered by a massage therapist named Diana Wolozin who'd been scheduled to come to his apartment that afternoon for a routine visit. When she was unable to wake him, Wolozin used his cell phone to call Mary-Kate Olsen, who was also a client of the masseuse's, three times instead of dialing the police. According to CNN, Olsen in turn called for a security guard to be sent to the apartment before authorities were summoned, and the confusing timeline of her involvement with this notification had people wondering whether the famed Olsen Twin had somehow participated in his passing.

According to People, the two had been quietly dating for a few months by that time, but Olsen's reps insisted she had not provided him the medications he was taking at the time of his passing, as many suspected. However, she also reportedly refused to speak with federal investigating authorities without the promise of an immunity deal for herself, so a cloud of confusion continued to linger over Olsen's head for years as a result.

He was warned to stop mixing medications

Ledger's death was later officially determined to have been caused by a toxic mixture of the medications oxycodone, diazepam, hydrocodone and doxylamine. Almost a decade after his fatal ingestion, Ledger's own father spoke up to place the blame for his son's demise squarely where he believed it belonged: Heath Ledger himself. In an interview with Daily Mail Australia, Kim Ledger revealed that Heath Ledger had spoken with his sister Kate the day before his death and that she had warned him of the dangers of combining prescriptions without consulting a physician. "It was totally his fault. It was no one else's — he reached for them. He put them in his system. You can't blame anyone else in that situation," Kim Ledger said. "That's hard to accept because I loved him so much and was so proud of him. His sister was on the phone to him the night before telling him not to take the prescription medications with the sleeping tablets. He said: 'Katie, Katie, I'm fine. I know what I'm doing.' He would have had no idea.'"

Ledger added that he believed his son received the prescriptions from travelling to different doctors during work on various locations. "There's so much pressure on them to perform so even though your body is telling you that it's not good and needs time, it's like 'just take these painkillers and keep going,'" he said. "That was the case with Heath. He had to be back on set to finish. They were doing night shoots in the freezing cold and he had a weak chest anyway. He'd caught this cough and just couldn't shake it but he thought he had to because he wanted to get the movie done."

His A-list friends stepped up to finish his hard-won final role

The movie he was working on at the time of his passing was The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which was incomplete at the time of his death, so actors Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law all stepped in to perform the remainder of his final role and donated their paychecks to his daughter.

Director Terry Gilliam told The Daily Mail that they were among a larger group of actors who'd volunteered to complete the film, including Tom Cruise, but that it was their personal relationships with Ledger that informed the director's decision to rework the role to incorporate these three new faces. "We agreed it would work better if they did it their own way, rather than copy Heath's. Johnny was to bring out the charming side of the character's nature, Colin was to develop the dark side, and Jude to fit in between the two," Gilliam said. The film was ultimately finished and released nearly two years after Ledger's passing.

He had long struggled with stress and sleep deprivation

Although they shared a child together and were snapped by the paparazzi during many happy moments of the Brooklyn-based relationship, Michelle Williams and Heath Ledger had broken up shortly before his death, and, according to director Gilliam, his personal woes were partly to blame for his obsession with working. Gilliam told The Daily Mail, "He was upset by the turmoil in his private life. He wanted to do the right thing by Michelle. He was obsessed with his love for Matilda and he was terrified he might lose access to her. ... One day, he showed up on the set with a terrible cough, shivering and soaked in sweat. He was clearly very sick. We called a doctor, who told him: 'This is the beginning of pneumonia. You need to go home and take antibiotics.' He said, 'No way. I'm not going home, because I can't sleep and I'll just be thinking about everything in my life. I'd rather stay and work.'"

Ledger had reportedly struggled with chronic insomnia for years before his death. Filmmaker Derik Murray told The New York Post, "He'd sleep either zero or two hours a night for years. He would call people up in the middle of the night."

Director Todd Haynes, who'd worked with him on 2006's I'm Not There, told New York Magazine that he'd also suffered anxiety about working but that Williams had then been around to comfort him at the time, saying, "The night before we were going to shoot a scene, he started to have a real panic about it. He had to call Michelle in New York, who talked him through relaxation methods to try to get him asleep. He said he was just curled up in a corner holding one of Matilda's stuffed animals, and he slept about an hour and came on set."

He'd been through a quiet but difficult breakup battle with Williams

Following their split, Williams and Ledger kept their personal disputes close to the chest, but according to those who saw what was going on behind the scenes, their breakup was much more brutal than the public would know. As Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus director Terry Gilliam told Vanity Fair, the two grew distant during the awards season hubbub that followed their shared nominations for Brokeback Mountain. "The whole machinery started growing up around them," Gilliam says.

"That was the moment when it changed, when he realized, Uh-oh. We perceive the world differently. He didn't care about things like those awards," Gilliam added. "He was trying to be decent and graceful, give her whatever she wanted—the house, every f***ing thing. But once it started going south, it went very quickly. He was overwhelmed by lawyers, and there were more and more of them, as if they were breeding. I said, 'This is bulls***. Heath, just end it. Get out—it's bad. You've got to just walk away from it.' The stakes kept going up. He wouldn't listen to any of us." One of the biggest points of contention, Gilliam said, was the matter of custody rights to his then-2-year-old daughter Matilda.

The separation, it seems, took a toll on him. As Ledger's dialect coach Gerry Grennell told People, "He missed his girl, he missed his family, he missed his little girl — he desperately wanted to see her and hold her and play with her. He was desperately unhappy, desperately sad."

He'd also struggled with sobriety

In the years leading up to his death from prescription pills, Ledger had also battled with addiction to illegal drugs. A 2006 video of the actor at a Hollywood party showed him in a moment where he seemed to be snorting cocaine off a table and telling fellow partygoers, "I'm going to get serious s*** from my girlfriend, we had a baby three months ago. I shouldn't be here at all."

By 2008, though, Ledger had reportedly sobered up and drank Diet Coke at parties where others imbibed alcohol. His best friend, Nathan Holmes, reportedly ran point to make sure that drugs weren't in sight when he was out and about. As a source told New York Magazine, "Nathan said, 'Heath can't see this.' He was making an effort to protect him, and Heath was obviously in a vulnerable state. He said, 'Heath cannot see this stuff, he had problems, he's sober now.'"

Even despite his use of dangerous prescription drugs, his sobriety remained intact, as illegal drugs were not found in his system by toxicologists. Of the reports, Ledger's parents said, "Today's results put an end to speculation. While no medications were taken in excess, we learned today the combination of doctor-prescribed drugs proved lethal for our boy."

He almost wasn't cast in Brokeback Mountain for a surprising reason

In 2015, 10 years after the release of the acclaimed film Brokeback Mountain, screenwriter Diana Ossana revealed that Ledger was almost denied his career-changing role of Ennis Del Mar because it was given to another actor (although she didn't name names, rumor has it that Mark Wahlberg was originally offered the role).

Ossana said in a Sirius XM podcast (via The Huffington Post), "[Ennis] was the most difficult role to cast. And that seemed to be the perpetual problem as we went on. And even a little bit for Ang. Another actor had committed and we had suggested Heath. But the studio didn't feel he was macho enough. I thought that was a rather odd comment. But we just sort of stuck with it. And when that actor backed out — and he did, after three months — I called Heath's agent." And the rest was movie history.

He kept a video diary for Matilda

Nine years after his death, footage was combined from a library of home videos Ledger had filmed for his then-toddler daughter Matilda, before his passing. The documentary, titled I Am Heath Ledger, premiered at 2017's Tribeca Film Festival and was made with the blessing of former love interest Michelle Williams and assistance of his family and friends.

In support of the documentary, longtime friend Kate Manera told People, "There was the movie star and then there was the person, and they just happened to inhabit the same body but they were not the same person."

As director (and Ledger's longtime friend) Matt Amato told The New York Post, "We knew Heath had started this company with Matt where he was directing music videos. But we quickly realized this was something that was very deep in Heath's soul — he had a passion for photography, for film. He essentially documented his life." Before the film was made, Amato reached out to Williams to ensure her support and she reportedly said, "We should do something now. Matilda is curious."

He directly and indirectly inspired new music

One of the many revelations that would come down as a result of I Am Heath Ledger's release was the actor's deep connection with the musical arts as well as acting. He reportedly established a record label called Masses Music in 2007 and hired singer-songwriter Ben Harper to write a lullaby that he could sing for Matilda upon her birth. "He became more of a dad than an artist," Harper said.

After the news of his death, Ledger would also inspire another song. As revealed by Amato in the doc, he was making a music video for Bon Iver's Justin Vernon when the news of Ledger's death came out, and the video shoot turned into a "three-day wake" as a result of his devastation. Vernon would later pen the 2011 song "Perth" in Ledger's honor, tellingExclaim that while he didn't know Ledger well himself, he was moved by Amato's emotional reaction to the news, saying, "I was with a guy that I didn't know very well, but basically, it's a long story, but in the three days we were supposed to spend together — he's a music video maker — in those three days, his best friend [Heath Ledger] died. And his best friend was from Perth. It just sort of became the beginning of the record."

He was completely immersed in his role as The Joker, but it didn't kill him

Ledger's work as The Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight was universally well-received and won him a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. But Ledger's sister Kate recently had to combat persistent rumors that it was this role which drove the star to consume multiple prescription medications, telling reporters at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, "Every report was coming out that he was depressed and that [the role] was taking this toll on him, and we're going, honestly, it was the absolute opposite. It couldn't be more wrong. He had an amazing sense of humour, and I guess maybe only his family and friends knew that, but he was having fun. He wasn't depressed about the Joker!"

Rumors had long swirled that Ledger was too deeply engrossed in the nefarious character, in part since he was revealed to have isolated himself in his London hotel room for a month to mentally prepare for the vicious role, even keeping a Joker journal filled with vexing in-character anecdotes like, "Inside. He's laughing red and black and red and black till there's nothing left to laugh. Until, almost tenderly, he turns inside out through his mouth." The most chilling insert of the diary was the last one, which read simply, "bye bye."