Ledger is born in the beachfront town of Perth, Australia. His dad, Kim, an engineer who designed race cars, and mom, Sally, a French teacher, divorce when Ledger is 11. The budding actor – who's already working regularly in community theater – adapts easily to shuttling between his parents' homes. "It set me up for this bohemian life I've been leading," he tells Rolling Stone in 2006. "I feel like I've been traveling with the same bag since I was 11."
At 16, Ledger, who says he "hates school," leaves home for Sydney, where he appears in the Aussie TV show Sweat. He also makes his feature film debut in Blackrock and takes the lead in Roar (left), Fox's new warrior drama – costarring Keri Russell. "It started off quite dignified and Braveheart-esque," Ledger tells Rolling Stone of the short-lived series. "But as they got desperate for ratings, slowly no one's wearing clothes." On the upside, he dates costar Lisa Zane (the sister of Titanic's Billy Zane), who's 18 years his senior.
Ledger hops a flight to Hollywood and lands the lead in 10 Things I Hate About You, opposite Julia Stiles (right). The teen comedy rakes in more than $50 million, but Ledger admits he's unhappy being labeled a heartthrob. "I was a young kid from Australia, and that was the only movie someone was willing to put me in, so what do you do?" he tells the Houston Chronicle. "You've got to start somewhere. I just didn't want to stay there." He adamantly turns down teen flicks for the next year.
Ledger stars as Mel Gibson's son in the Revolutionary War drama The Patriot (left). The movie hauls in $113 million and earns the 21-year-old his first taste of critical acclaim. Rolling Stone declares, "The Aussie newcomer has the talent and looks to become a major star." Ledger also lands on the cover of August’s Vanity Fair for a story breathlessly headlined, "We’re Havin' A Heath Wave."
While in Prague shooting A Knight's Tale, Ledger meets bombshell Heather Graham (right), who's also in Prague filming From Hell. "She's a beautiful, beautiful girl," he tells Movieline of the actress who's nine years his senior. "We make each other laugh – she's so f--king funny. That's the key. It's fun. It's a good relationship and a very truthful one." The two date for about a year before splitting in June 2001.
Fresh from being named one of PEOPLE's 50 Most Beautiful, Ledger's stars in A Knight's Tale (right). The comedy-adventure rakes in $117 million worldwide. "Once every 50 years, a guy like [Heath] comes along," director Brian Helgeland tells Vanity Fair.
After the overwhelming success of his first few films, Ledger signs on to a string of bombs, including Ned Kelly, an epic costarring Orlando Bloom that earns just $84,625 in the U.S. "I wanted to take the blond out of my career, kill the direction it was going in," he tells Rolling Stone. "Whether consciously or unconsciously, I perfectly sabotaged any studio interest in working with me." The dark period has two highlights: playing Billy Bob Thornton's suicidal son in Monster's Ball; and dating his Ned Kelly costar Naomi Watts (left), who's 11 years his senior. Ledger and Watts date on-and-off for two years.
Ledger signs on to star in Brokeback Mountain, a love story about two cowboys. The screenplay, long known as simply "The Gay Cowboy Movie," had bounced around Hollywood before landing in the hands of director Ang Lee. "My biggest anxiety wasn't having to kiss Jake," Ledger (pictured with Lee and costar Jake Gyllenhaal) tells Rolling Stone. "It was the perfect script and Ang Lee was the perfect director. So the anxiety for me was – I didn't want to be the one to f--k it up."
On the very first day of filming Brokeback, Ledger falls for costar Michelle Williams (left). "On the 5th take, Michelle and I [are] tobogganing down the hill..." he tells Rolling Stone. "And Michelle...twisted her knee – she was pretty much on crutches for the rest of the shoot. And I felt I always had to look after her after that." In May, PEOPLE reports that Ledger and Williams are expecting a baby. The pregnancy, Ledger tells Rolling Stone, is a surprise: "Our bodies definitely made those decisions for us." The two move into a brownstone in Brooklyn and begin nesting.
Williams gives birth to their daughter, Matilda Rose (right). Ledger seems to revel in fatherhood. "I'm Mr. Mom," he tells the Boston Globe. "I get [Michelle] granola and cook her an egg, I clean the dishes, and then I'm cooking lunch. Later, I go out to the market and get fresh produce for dinner. And I love it! I love my new job."
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Kobal Collection/Wireimage; Everett Collection; Kobal Collection/Wireimage; Steve Granitz/Wireimage; Kobal Collection/Wireimage; REX USA; Focus Features; Marion Curtis/Startraks; Alecsey Boldeskul