Heath Ledger: 1979 - 2008

01/24/2008 at 12:00 PM EST

Heath Ledger: 1979 - 2008
"He was very modest," John Travolta says of his late friend Ledger (in '06). "He didn't want to make a big deal out of himself. But he was a big deal."
Henny Garfunkel/Retna
The man who inked the name "Matilda" on Heath Ledger's stomach couldn't wait to see his friend again. "We were always excited when Heath came around; he was the warmest, most down-to-earth dude," says Joseph Ari Aloi, the Brooklyn tattoo artist who created Ledger's quirky tribute to his beloved 2-year-old daughter last year – and who had plans to hang out with the actor the night of Jan. 22. Instead, Aloi received a terrible call that afternoon: His buddy Ledger, just 28 years old, was dead. "It's profoundly painful and shocking and just really wrong," a shaken Aloi told People just hours after hearing the news – still bleeding from his calf, where he had tattooed this simple message: "For my brother Heath RIP 1/22/08."

A world away, in Ledger's native Australia, the same anguish hit the actor's family. "I heard about his death in the press, and I called his mother to find out what was happening, and even she didn't know," says Ledger's uncle Neil Bell, who lives in California and had recently spoken with his nephew. "Heath's father found out through the press. It's a pretty devastating way to find out."

The death of young Heath Ledger, once dubbed the next Marlon Brando, was a shattering blow to those who knew him and to those who just felt like they did. The discovery was made on the afternoon of Jan. 22, when a massage therapist who had an appointment with Ledger was let into his apartment in Manhattan's posh SoHo neighborhood by a housekeeper. The therapist found him naked in bed and phoned 911 at 3:27 p.m. Paramedics raced to the apartment and attempted CPR, but it was too late.

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