RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Tributes are pouring in for actor Heath Ledger with Australia's prime minister calling him one of our nation's finest actors. An autopsy is planned today on the 28-year-old star who was found dead yesterday in his Manhattan apartment with sleeping pills nearby. Police say there is no obvious sign that he took his own life.
Speaking from the Australian city of Perth, Ledger's father Kim called his son's death tragic, untimely and accidental.
Mr. KIM LEDGER: He was a down-to-earth, generous, kindhearted, life-loving, unselfish individual who was extremely inspirational to me.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Kim Masters has this remembrance.
KIM MASTERS: Heath Ledger was a handsome young man and a serious actor. His work impressed critics like David Thompson.
Mr. DAVID THOMPSON (Critic): You think of people like River Phoenix, go back a bit further - Montgomery Clift, James Dean - actors of extraordinary ability, people who moved millions of people, had their careers cut short. And Ledger was not even 30.
MASTERS: Ledger grew up in Perth, Australia. He developed an interest in drama as a child, and at 16 made the journey to Sydney to pursue an acting career. After picking up a number of stage and television roles he came to the United States. In 1999, Ledger starred in a teen comedy "10 Things I Hate About You," a modern take on "The Taming of the Shrew" in which he serenaded co-star Julia Stiles.
(Soundbite of movie, "10 Things I Hate About You")
Mr. HEATH LEDGER (Actor): (As Patrick Verona) (Singing) You're just too good to be true, can't take my eyes off of you. You feel like heaven to touch, I wanna hold you so much.
MASTERS: Ledger was offered similar heartthrob roles, but turned them down, saying he was interested in pursuing parts that he liked. He gave a more serious performance as Mel Gibson's son in the Revolutionary War drama "The Patriot." And he played Billy Bob Thornton's suicidal son in "Monster's Ball." But the part for which Ledger will be remembered best was his tragic gay ranch hand Ennis del Mar in "Brokeback Mountain." This is the performance that earned him an Oscar nomination.
(Soundbite of movie, "Brokeback Mountain")
Mr. LEDGER: (As Ennis del Mar) The bottom line is, we're around each other and this thing grabs hold of us again in the wrong place, in the wrong time, and we're dead.
MASTERS: In an interview supplied by Universal Pictures at the time of "Brokeback Mountain's" release, Ledger said he knew he would find it difficult to play the love scenes in the film.
Mr. LEDGER: Not being gay, I knew that would be a challenge for me, and I knew that I could use that to my advantage. I knew that I could use my personal fears in playing this role and I could parallel them to Ennis's fears in playing out his love.
MASTERS: Critic David Thompson was impressed with Ledger's decision to take the part.
Mr. THOMPSON: Just consider for a moment what a brave choice that was for a young male, manly actor. And what a great performance he gave in the film.
MASTERS: Ledger's love life often made the news. He dated actress Naomi Watts, but then was linked romantically with his "Brokeback Mountain" co-star Michelle Williams. The two had a child together but split last year. More recently, gossip pages linked him for a time with troubled actress Lindsay Lohan.
On screen, Ledger was last seen as one of several actors playing Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes's film "I'm Not There." His last role was as The Joker in "The Dark Knight," the follow-up to the 2005 film "Batman Begins." That movie is set for release in July.
Kim Masters, NPR News.