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Heath Ledger: The death of an innocent?

  • Story Highlights
  • Ledger's death at 28 came as a huge shock to the world of entertainment
  • There is a long history of actors dying young: John Belushi, Marilyn Monroe
  • Ledger was not known as a wild party-goer, but as a sensitive family man
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By Peter Sorel-Cameron
For CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- As depressing as it may seem, it is not an unusual story. A young, talented actor who seems to have the world at their feet is discovered dead from an apparent overdose.

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Ledger was not known for his wild behavior, his death came a huge shock.

The deaths of stars such as Marilyn Monroe and John Belushi were mourned throughout the film industry and sent shockwaves across world, but they were, in a sense, part of a hedonistic tradition.

Neither of these past stars were strangers to the drugs that killed them, nor to the lifestyle that went with that substance abuse -- Monroe was known for attending wild parties with the Rat Pack and Belushi regularly hit the headlines with his drug use.

But the discovery of Australian actor Heath Ledger dead in his New York apartment, Tuesday, has come as a major shock to people across the world.

His career was reaching new heights in the years up to his death -- most notably a best actor nomination at the Oscars for his portrayal of Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain in 2005 -- and he had made a positive step into the A-list, playing The Joker in the latest installment in the regenerated Batman franchise.

Dying at the peak of your fame is not unusual: Belushi was lined up to follow successes in "Animal House" and "The Blues Brothers" with a starring role in "Ghostbusters"; Monroe was planning to star alongside Dean Martin, Jack Lemmon and Frank Sinatra in future projects; and River Phoenix was following up his own Oscar nomination with roles in hard-hitting, mature films such as "The Basketball Diaries."

So why are we so surprised? He follows in a long tradition of celebrities crashing under the pressure of the spotlight -- save for one major difference: he wasn't known as an outgoing party-boy. As Howard Bragman, founder of the Fifteen Minutes PR agency said on CNN, "Nobody saw this coming."

He went on: "There's probably 25 or 50 people you could name if this happened to (them), including Brad Renfro, you'd say 'Well, that was an accident waiting to happen.'"

Renfro, who was found dead at the age of 25 in his Los Angeles apartment one week before Ledger's death, had suffered a decline in his career after initial success as a child actor. He had struggled with alcohol and drug abuse. But his story hasn't captured the same international media attention as Ledger's.

Although they are not the easiest comparison, since Renfro had had less attention in the preceding years, it may be that his lifestyle off-screen made his untimely death less of a shock to the public.

Figures like Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse are closest to perpetuating the image of self-destructive hedonism that characters like John Belushi embodied. It is hard to predict the reaction of a celebrity's death, but it seems likely that if a modern hell-raiser died there would be at least one section of society suggesting that it was always on the cards.

The bottom line is, Ledger doesn't fit into the same category as any of these people. He was a quiet, well-respected man, who was the father of a two-year-old girl, Matilda, by his long-term partner Michelle Williams. The pair split late 2007.

The shock that this has inspired seems to be a combination of his youth; his sensitivity in the roles he has chosen and the way he has brought them to life; and the fact that he seemed to live a largely vice-free existence, away from the headline grabbing exploits of Spears and Winehouse.

Heath Ledger was a star on the way up, his touching performance in "Brokeback Mountain" demonstrated his immense maturity as an actor, and his death has robbed us of a great talent.

And, although there seems to be a long list of actors who have died young in drug-related incidents, this has left much of the world feeling that it isn't fair, simply because he seemed to do nothing to deserve his sudden and untimely death. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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