What It Was Really Like The Day Heath Ledger Died In 2008

His breakout role in Hollywood came in the 1999 romantic comedy, "10 Things I Hate About You." In playing the film's bad boy heartthrob character, Australian-born actor Heath Ledger immediately became a household name. The film was a box office hit, and its success flipped a new page for his then-up-and-coming career. Having only been acting in Australian television shows, his career took off when he got to Tinseltown. 

Ledger's filmography showcased his versatility as an actor; he did rom-coms, adventure, action, drama, and romance in the years before his untimely death (via IMDb). Two of his notable roles were in the 2005 film, "Brokeback Mountain," which earned Ledger his first Oscar nomination, and his portrayal of the Joker in 2008's "The Dark Knight" — another Oscar-nominated role. Sadly, he died at the age of 28 on January 22, 2008, per The New York Times, before the latter film's release. His first and only Oscar was posthumously awarded to him the following year for best-supporting actor in 2009, per The Hollywood Reporter.

Heath Ledger's death

Heath Ledger's tragic and sudden death in January 2008 stunned and shocked both movie fans and the film industry alike. When the news of his death hit the wire, it was reported that he was found face down and naked on the floor of his New York apartment, per Reuters. Some early reports speculated that Ledger's death was an overdose because pills were also discovered, even though no official cause of death had been released. Others speculated that it was suicide by use of illegal drugs. President George W. Bush even postponed an event marking the launch of an ad campaign aimed at preventing prescription drug abuse, WFLX.

It was eventually revealed a few weeks later that Ledger died of an apparent accidental overdose of prescription medication, per History. He had been taking painkillers and antidepressant drugs. A final autopsy showed that Ledger had a variety of these drugs in his system at the time of his death, per The Guardian. "Heath Ledger died as the result of acute intoxication by the combined effects of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine," Ellen Borakove, the spokeswoman for the New York City medical examiner, said in a later statement. The actor had reportedly turned to drugs to cope with insomnia and stress in the months preceding his death.

The discovery

There were apparently two calls made to emergency services on the day Heath Ledger died. His housekeeper, the first person to find him in the apartment when he was possibly still alive, made one call (via New York Daily News). The other call was made by his masseuse, who was scheduled to provide massage therapy for him that day. At the time, she discovered him unresponsive. Yet the revelation of what happened in the hours after his death raised a lot of speculation — and even raised suspicion surrounding a famous actress.

On January 22, 2008, Ledger's housekeeper arrived at his apartment in the early afternoon. She went into his bedroom's bathroom to change a light and observed that Ledger was under covers, sleeping facing down, and snoring (via WFLX). Almost two hours later, his masseuse arrived for the appointment. When she realized he never came out of his room, she went into his bedroom and discovered that he wasn't responding to her nudges and calls. However, the first call she reportedly makes after realizing something was wrong was to actress Mary-Kate Olsen, Ledger's friend and someone he was rumored to be dating at the time. According to CNN, the masseuse made three calls to Olsen, who then said that she was deploying her private services to the apartment. After her last call to Olsen, the masseuse then called 911.

Critical moments after Ledger's death

No one knew then what caused Heath Ledger to become unresponsive, but an emergency team eventually arrived at his apartment to provide assistance. They allegedly arrived at the same moment Mary-Kate Olsen private service team also got there, per via WFLX.

Medical technicians spent about 30 minutes attempting to revive Ledger, but he never showed or regained any sign of consciousness. He was then declared dead. At his apartment, investigators purportedly found a $20 bill with some residue on it. It was speculated to be an illegal substance, but nothing concrete was determined at the time. They also stated that nothing suspicious was believed to be a cause for his death (via WFLX). While there were also several pill bottles located in Ledger's bedroom and bathroom, these medications were believed to be prescribed for health issues. It was later revealed that a combination of these drugs ultimately cost Ledger his life, per the Los Angeles Times.

The reaction from fellow actors and others

Of course, Hollywood was stunned to learn of Heath Ledger's death. He was only a year shy of marking a decade since entering the film industry (via Biography). Actors and actresses shared their heartfelt reactions to his shocking death.

Mel Gibson, his co-star and the man who cast him in the 2000 historical drama "The Patriot," said that he was optimistic about Ledger's young but thriving career. "I had such great hope for him. He was just taking off, and to lose his life at such a young age is a tragic loss. My thoughts and prayers are with him and his family," said Gibson.

Fellow Australian and actress Nicole Kidman also shared her shock and sadness with his death. "What a tragedy. My heart goes out to his family," said Kidman (via CNN).

Ledger had completed filming "The Dark Knight" a few weeks earlier, and the film's studio also released a statement expressing sorrow for the loss (via TMZ). "The studio is stunned and devastated by this tragic news," it read. "The entertainment community has lost an enormous talent. Heath was a brilliant actor and an exceptional person. Our hearts go out to his family and friends."

Outside his acting career, Ledger lived quite a practical life. So much so that some people who saw him every day didn't know he was a star. "He was a very simple guy. You wouldn't know he was an actor unless you saw him on TV," said the superintendent of Ledger's building.

Ledger's mourning fans

After his death was reported, it was only a matter of time before crowds of Heath Ledger's fans appeared outside his apartment building to mourn the actor's death. Ledger lived in a loft in New York City's SoHo neighborhood. Per Reuters, hundreds were also there to witness when paramedics rolled out Ledger's body on a stretcher into an ambulance. "I feel a bit silly being one of the ones gawking, but it's horribly sad. In 'Brokeback Mountain,' it was one of the first times I was moved by an actor of my own generation," said one person, who worked in film production. "It felt like we had just seen an assassination," an acting student told The New York Times. "Like Anna Nicole all over again, just a chaotic circus."

They also began to lay flowers and pictures of the actor for a makeshift memorial outside the building, located at 421 Broome Street. Several miles away at his former home in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, fans also gathered to leave behind a memorial at the home he once shared with his former girlfriend and actress Michelle Williams (via New York Daily News). Fans continued to leave behind messages of remembrance for the actor in the days and weeks after his death.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).