Heath Ledger in Candy courtesy THINKFilm Heath Ledger in Candy courtesy THINKFilm

Not long before 3:35 pm on January 22, 2008, the short life and promising career of actor Heath Ledger came to a sudden, tragic end. It was around this time that Ledger's housekeeper and his masseuse discovered the body of the Australian-born actor in the bedroom of the Broome Street apartment he'd been renting in lower Manhattan. Ledger was not yet 29 years old.

News of Ledger's death came as a terrible shock to nearly everyone, even though it now seems the low-key, Oscar-nominated actor had been privately battling his own demons for quite some time. His passing is the terrible surprise ending no one saw coming, an abrupt finale to a life and career that seemed to be all about the unexpected.

Born and raised in Perth, Australia, and named after the darkly romantic anti-hero from Wuthering Heights (he has a sister named Katherine), Ledger left school at the age of 17 to pursue a career in acting. He eventually landed a role in Blackrock, a small independent feature about teen rape, followed by short stints on the Australian TV series Sweat and Home and Away. After starring opposite Vera Farmiga in Roar, Shaun Cassidy's short-lived Celtic sword-and-sorcery adventure series for Fox, Ledger got his first major Hollywood break: playing bad-boy Patrick Verona in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), a popular teen updating of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. The role garnered Ledger some attention and a fan base, but he was obviously miscast and uncomfortable with high-school hijinks. Though barely 20, it was already clear that Ledger, with his unconventional looks and a naturally brooding, introspective demeanor, would never fit into the typical heartthrob mold, and he would prove difficult to cast effectively.

Despite good reviews for his performance as the idealistic and doomed Continental soldier Gabriel in Mel Gibson's The Patriot (2000) and a charismatic turn in the unexpectedly fun and entirely forgettable A Knight's Tale (2001), the serious starring role he needed continued to elude him. Ledger found himself fumbling through a series of misfires: The Four Feathers, Ned Kelly, The Order. Small but memorable parts in movies like the acclaimed Monster's Ball and the otherwise negligible Lords of Dogtown, as well as his tag-team turn with Matt Damon in The Brothers Grimm, suggested that perhaps Ledger wasn't cut out to be a leading man.

And then came the big surprise, the kind of revelatory moment of which Hollywood legends - and careers - are made: Ledger's heartbreaking performance as Ennis Del Mar in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005). It was a role a number of actors, shy about playing gay, had already passed on, but Ledger pounced, giving himself up heart and soul to the role of a repressed Wyoming ranch hand whose inability to openly admit his love for another man (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) consigns him to a life of isolation, anguish and loneliness. Ledger's astonishing, beautifully nuanced performance earned him perfectly apt comparisons to the likes of Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and Sean Penn, as well as an Academy Award nomination (he would lose to Capote's Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Ledger's disappointing follow-up - the title role in Casanova (also 2005), Lasse Hallström's fanciful bio of the legendary lover - served as a reminder that Ledger still wasn't right for everything, but his next three films would position him as one of the most interesting - and unpredictable - actors of his generation. In the underrated Candy (2006), Ledger turned in a richly textured - and unsettlingly convincing - portrayal of an Australian junkie whose love for heroin ruins both his life and the life of his lover, played by Abbie Cornish. In Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, he played a self-destructive, James Dean-esque actor whose marriage falls apart under the twin pressures of stardom and adultery. And of course, there's The Dark Knight, due for release on July 18, in which Ledger will appear as the homicidal psychopath the Joker, a role he admitted in a recent New York Times Magazine interview he found tough to shake.

Several days before his death, Ledger was reportedly in London working on Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, a dark fantasy about a traveling theater. In what may turn out to be the final image of the actor taken before his death, Ledger poignantly appears on set dressed as Pierrot, the brokenhearted clown mesmerized by the moon and in love with a woman he can never have.

Poll: Which of Ledger's films is your personal favorite?

Related:
" News: Heath Ledger Was in "Good Spirits" on Final Film Shoot
" News: Heath Ledger Found Dead; Family Calls It "Tragic, Untimely"
" Jeers: Larry King flubs Heath Ledger profile
" Watch video: News coverage of Ledger's shocking death
" Watch video: Clips from many of Ledger's films
" Photo gallery: Heath Ledger's life in pictures
" Photo gallery: Stars and friends tribute Ledger