NEW YORK - , the talented 28-year-old actor who gravitated toward dark, brooding roles that defied his leading-man looks, was found dead Tuesday in a Manhattan apartment, facedown at the foot of his bed with prescription sleeping pills nearby, police said.
There was no obvious indication that the Australian-born Ledger had committed suicide, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said.
Ledger had an appointment for a massage at the SoHo apartment that is believed to be the home of the "" actor, Browne said. The massage therapist and a housekeeper found his naked body at about 3:30 p.m. They tried to revive him, but he was already dead.
"I had such great hope for him," said, who played Ledger's vengeful father in "The Patriot," in a statement. "He was just taking off and to lose his life at such a young age is a tragic loss."
Outside the Manhattan building on an upscale street, paparazzi and gawkers gathered, and several police officers put up barricades to control the crowd of about 300. Onlookers craned their necks as officers brought out a black bodybag on a gurney, took it across the sidewalk and put it into a medical examiner's office van.
As the door opened, bystanders snapped pictures with camera phones, rolled video and said, "He's coming out!"
An autopsy was planned for Wednesday,Ellen Borakove said.
While not a marquee movie star, Ledger was an award-winning actor who chose his roles carefully rather than cashing in on big-money parts. He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as a gay cowboy in "Brokeback Mountain." During filming, he met Michelle Williams, who played his wife in the film. The two had a daughter, now 2-year-old Matilda, and lived together in Brooklyn until they split up last year.
It was a shocking and unforeseen conclusion for one of's bright young stars. Though his leading man looks propelled him to early stardom in films like " " and " ," his career took a notable turn toward dramatic and brooding roles with 2001's " ."
Ledger's publicist, Mara Buxbaum, said in a statement: "We are all deeply saddened and shocked by this accident. This is an extremely difficult time for his loved ones and we are asking the media to please respect the family's privacy and avoid speculation until the facts are known."
In the, where Ledger was born and raised, his father called the actor's death "tragic, untimely and accidental."
"He was (a) down-to-, generous, kind-hearted, life-loving, unselfish individual, extremely inspirational to many," Kim Ledger said, reading from a prepared statement. "Heath has touched so many people on so many different levels during his short life."
Ledger eschewed Hollywood glitz in favor of a bohemian life in Brooklyn, where he became one of the borough's most famous residents. "Brokeback" would be his breakthrough role, establishing him as one of his generation's finest talents and an actor willing to take risks.
Ledger began to gravitate more toward independent fare, including's "Casanova" and 's " ," both released in 2005. His 2006 film "Candy" now seems destined to have an especially haunting quality: In a particularly realistic performance, Ledger played a poet wrestling with a heroin addiction along with his girlfriend, played by Abbie Cornish.
But Ledger's most recent choices were arguably the boldest yet: He costarred in "I'm Not There," in which he played one of the many incarnations of— as did , whose performance in that film earned an Oscar nomination Tuesday for best supporting actress.
And in what may be his final finished performance, Ledger proved that he wouldn't be intimidated by taking on a character as iconic as's Joker. Ledger's version of the "Batman" villain, glimpsed in early teaser trailers, made it clear that his Joker would be more depraved and dark.
Curiosity about Ledger's final performance will likely stoke further interest in the summer blockbuster. "Dark Knight" directorsaid this month that Ledger's Joker would be wildly different from Nicholson's.
"It was a very great challenge for Heath," Nolan said. "He's extremely original, extremely frightening, tremendously edgy. A very young character, a very anarchic presence that taps into a lot of our basic fears and panic."
Ledger toldin a November interview that he "stressed out a little too much" during the Dylan film and had trouble sleeping while portraying the Joker, whom he called a "psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy."
"Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night," Ledger told the newspaper. "I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going." He said he took two Ambien pills, which worked for only an hour, the paper said.
Ledger was a widely recognized figure in his Manhattan neighborhood, where he used to shop at a home and children's store. Michelle Vella, an employee there, said she had frequently seen Ledger with his daughter — carrying the toddler on his shoulders, or having ice cream with her.
"It's so sad. They were really close," Vella said. "He's a very down-to-earth guy and an amazing father."
Before settling down with Williams, Ledger had relationships with actressesand . He met Watts while working on "The Lords of Dogtown," a fictionalized version of a cult classic skateboarding documentary, in 2004.
Ledger was born in 1979 to a mining engineer and a French teacher and got his first acting role playingat age 10 in a local theater company. He began acting in independent films as a 16-year-old in Sydney and played a cyclist hoping to land a spot on an Olympic team in a 1996 television show, "Seat."
After several independent films, Ledger moved toat age 19 and starred opposite in " ." Offers for other teen flicks soon came his way, but Ledger turned them down, preferring to remain idle than sign on for projects he didn't like.
"It wasn't a hard decision for me," Ledger told the Associated Press in 2001. "It was hard for everyone else around me to understand. Agents were like, `You're crazy,' my parents were like, 'Come on, you have to eat.'"
Associated Press writer Sara Kugler contributed to this report.