The Story Behind The Cryptic Remark Jack Nicholson Made When Heath Ledger Died

The Joker is one of the most iconic pop culture villains — not just in comic books, but also in cinema and television, with no shortage of anticipation and speculation surrounding every announcement of a new iteration of the character. The first time the Joker was given the big-budget treatment was in 1989's "Batman," helmed by Tim Burton (via IMDb), which saw Jack Nicholson play the character, beating out such major actors as Robin Williams and Willem Dafoe, according to Far Out Magazine. While Nicholson's Joker is still fondly remembered today, his version of the character was killed at the end of the film, essentially preventing him from reprising the role.

When the Joker was teased at the end of Christopher Nolan's reboot of the "Batman" series in 2005, the question on everyone's minds was: Who's going to play the next Joker? That question was answered in 2008's critically acclaimed "The Dark Knight," which saw Heath Ledger take on the role of the Clown Prince of Crime (via Rotten Tomatoes). The actor's take on the character was universally loved, and even garnered him a posthumous Oscar, but it took its toll on him; according to the New York Daily News, Ledger admitted that he lost a lot of sleep portraying "a psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy ... I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going."

Jack Nicholson's ominous remark about Heath Ledger's death

Heath Ledger was not able to enjoy the accolades he received for his role as the Joker due to his tragic death on January 22, 2008, the result of an overdose of various prescription drugs, including medications for pain, anxiety, and sleep. He was 28 years old. Adding another dark note to Ledger's death is previous Joker actor Jack Nicholson's comment.

According to the New York Post, Nicholson was in London when he learned of the actor's death. He told a group of reporters there, "I warned him!" as he stood outside a restaurant smoking a cigarette. He added, "That's awful" and then went quiet before saying, "Just pretend I'm not here," and made his way back into the restaurant.

As to what that warning consisted of specifically, Nicholson remained mum, though in a later interview, he said he "warns people about Ambien," a popular medication for insomnia (per WebMD). "I warn people about it. But I also did not know Mr. Ledger" (via Fox News).

However, what Nicholson did elaborate on were his feelings about being denied the chance to return to playing the Joker. In a 2007 interview with MTV News, he gets right to the point, saying, "Let me be the way I'm not in interviews. I'm furious. I'm furious. [He laughs.] They never asked me about a sequel with the Joker. I know how to do that! Nobody ever asked me." Nicholson was fairly territorial of the Joker, although it should be noted that his candidness in this interview was before Ledger's unfortunate overdose.

Jack Nicholson's grudge

While Nicholson can't be blamed for having such a deep love for his time as the Joker, he did seem oddly upset about not having the opportunity to return to the role. In his interview with MTV News, Nicholson is asked if he'd ever been approached about playing the Joker again, to which he responded: "No. It's like, in any area, you can't believe the reasons things do or don't happen. Not asking me how to do the sequel is that kind of thing. Maybe it's not a mistake. Maybe it was the right thing, but to be candid, I'm furious."

Nicholson elaborated on his deep attachment to the Joker to MTV News, revealing that he'd been a fan of the character since he was a child. He also revealed another reason for appearing as the Clown Prince of Crime in the 1989 film, which was director Tim Burton's unique approach to adapting the comic book source material. According to Nicholson, Burton was "a genius. He had the right take on it. That's why I did the movie. I did the movie based on a single conversation with him. We both come from the cartoon world originally. We had similar ideas." Perhaps the actor has softened his opinion on the matter in his later years; after all, the debate continues today on who played the best on-screen version of the Joker, and Nicholson's name is still brought up.