Already something of an established actor in his native Australia, Heath Ledger first came to the attention of American audiences in 1999 with his winning turn in the teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, playing the rebellious Patrick Verona in the update of The Taming of the Shrew.
Born in Perth, Western Australia on April 4, 1979, Ledger first became interested in acting while attending the all-boys Guilford Grammar School. He began his career performing onstage with the Guildford Theatre Company and was soon appearing in substantial roles on Australian television shows. The 1996 series Sweat featured him as a gay cyclist, while the following year's Roar cast him as a medieval Celtic prince--and also won him the beginnings of a fan base. After moving across the Pacific to Los Angeles, Ledger landed his lead role in 10 Things I Hate About You opposite Julia Stiles in 1999. The movie proved to be a summer hit, and it succeeded in introducing Ledger to a legion of new fans. That same year, he starred in Two Hands, an Australian action comedy that cast him as a Sydney teenager who finds himself in debt to an underworld kingpin, played by Bryan Brown. The film premiered at that year's Sundance Film Festival. Following a prominent role in Roland Emmerich's The Patriot (2000), Ledger brought Excalibur sensibilities into the new millenium with A Knight's Tale (2001). With its tradition shattering blend of modern slang and music balanced with the classic tale of jousting mayhem, A Knight's Tale served as an exciting star vehicle for the popular young actor. The young actor also garnered a fair amount of praise for his supporting role as a deeply depressed prison employee in the Oscar-winning film Monsters Ball (2001).
Though the film did not fare well critically or otherwise, Ledger nonetheless proved himself a versatile actor in The Four Feathers (2002), in which he starred as a cowardly officer-in-training who resigns from the British Army shortly before being shipped off to Sudan. In the same vein, though The Order (2003) was shunned by critics, Ledger was praised for his intense performance as a tortured, knowledge-seeking priest. Australia's Ned Kelly (2003) featured a then 24-year-old Heath in the title role of sixteen-year-old outlaw Ned Kelly, and placed him among a skilled cast including Six Feet Under star and fellow Australian Rachel Griffiths, the Oscar-winning Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, and Naomi Watts.
In 2005, Ledger captivated Hollywood with his sensitive turn as Ennis Del Mar in the gay-themed modern western Brokeback Mountain. Impressing audiences with his portrayal of the soft-spoken and tortured character struggling with his love for fellow cowboy Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), he went on to garner multiple awards for the role, including Best Actor wins from numerous film critics associations, as well as a coveted Oscar nomination.
Ledger was busy in 2005 following Brokeback, with lead roles in the period films Casanova and The Brothers Grimm, as well as a turn as a heroin-addicted husband in Candy. His own engagement to Brokeback costar Michelle Williams made headlines and produced a daughter in late 2005, though the two ended their relationship the following year. Ledger had completed his role as The Joker in The Dark Knight (due out in July 2008) and was filming Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus when he was found dead in a New York City apartment building on January 22, 2008. It turned out that his final performance would be the most celebrated of his career. His turn as Gotham City's most deranged criminal helped make The Dark Knight one of the biggest box office hits in movie history, and earned him posthumous nominations for Best Supporting Actor from both the Screen Actors Guild and the Academy.