On February 22, 2009, Heath Ledger became the second actor to posthumously win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The award recognized Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in “The Dark Knight”, making him the only actor playing a comic book character to win a best acting Oscar. It is difficult imagining “The Dark Knight” without Ledger and he was a primary reason it is one of the most popular movies of all time.

The Joker had been enthusiastically portrayed by Cesar Romero on TV’s “Batman” and received an ominous interpretation from Jack Nicholson in the 1989 movie “Batman”. Christopher Nolan took over as writer and director of the Batman franchise in 2005 and cast Christian Bale as the title character. “The Dark Knight” the second film in Nolan’s series featured the return of the Joker. Nolan didn’t consider Nicholson for a reprisal of the Joker (probably because the character had been killed off in the 1989 version). Early rumors were that Robin Williams would be the Joker and other actors including Steve Carell publicly lobbied for the role. However, Nolan was insistent on casting Ledger, a bold choice considering the handsome actor had done nothing remotely similar in his ten-year career. Nicholson was furious that he wasn’t considered, and Ledger told reporters that had he known Nicholson was interested he never would have accepted the role. At the same time Ledger knew that Nolan would give him creative license to formulate a new Joker and he was eager to take on the challenge.

The swagger of Ledger’s Joker was a mash-up of Alex from “A Clockwork Orange” and Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols. His clothes were inspired by Vicious’ band mate Johnny Rotten while his scars were inspired by Gwynplaine from Victor Hugo’s novel “The Man Who Laughs”. Ledger decided to use self-applied drugstore makeup because he felt the Joker wouldn’t let people apply his makeup before a big crime.   Believing that the Joker’s voice would be a critical component of the crazed character, Ledger worked closely with a voice coach and then studied how ventriloquist dummies operate. Ledger worked aspects of the ventriloquist and the dummy into his character.

Prior to filming, Ledger locked himself in a motel room for 43 days with no distractions or electronics. The isolation helped him perfect the crazed character and he maintained a Joker’s diary with macabre stories and drawings. 

During early rehearsals, Ledger wouldn’t reveal his costume and makeup to other cast members. The first time that actors saw Ledger in full make-up was when the Joker crashes the party at Wayne Enterprises. Maggie Gyllenhaal was so frightened she couldn’t look at Ledger and veteran thespian Michael Caine forgot his lines.
Despite scaring the bejesus out of them, Ledger was beloved by his co-stars. He constantly skateboarded around the set in full costume. Even on days when Ledger wasn’t being filmed, he showed up in full costume to remind everyone about the need to stop the villain. When he needed to step back in front of the camera, the Joker referred to his depraved diary to snap back into character.

Did the Joker kill Heath Ledger? 
Jack Nicholson advised Heath Ledger “The role will haunt you, the role is so dark, that you probably won’t be able to sleep, but enjoy the role because it’s nothing but good fun.” Many have asked if Ledger’s total dedication to the Joker resulted in his demise.
After filming of “The Dark Knight” completed the young actor constantly complained about his inability to sleep. The twenty-eight- year old died on January 22, 2008 from an accidental overdose of prescription medication and sleeping aids. Ledger’s sister Kate insists that the overdose wasn’t intentional. “He had an amazing sense of humor and certainly playing The Joker, for him, was one big gag. He had so much fun doing that. There was no doom and gloom. … That was a shock to me that people even thought that.”

Heath Ledger cited the Joker as his favorite role and there are millions like me who will never forget his extraordinary performance.  

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