Thursday, January 22, 2015

R.I.P. Heath Ledger: The Joker actor died 7 years ago today

Seven years today. It's hard to believe that's how long ago Heath Ledger died.

For Batman and superhero fans and nerds like me, Ledger will go down in history as The Joker in the 2008 film, "The Dark Knight." 

I had never seen any of his movies when it was announced Ledger would play the Clown Prince of Crime. Aside from a lot of critical and fan praise, I knew nothing about this Australian actor who was about to take on one of the most iconic roles in comic-book history.

Ledger's Jan. 22, 2008 death from essentially an accidental overdose was disturbing. I can't imagine what it meant for people who truly considered themselves his fans.

Sadly, Ledger never got to see the worldwide phenomenon that was "The Dark Knight" (TDK). His Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor was bestowed to his family posthumously.

We could argue for a loooong time how Ledger's death impacted the way TDK performed at the box office and its subsequent promotion or if fans and critics would have embraced the "Batman Begins" sequel as much if the actor playing The Joker hadn't died six months before its release without coming to any kind of conclusion. …

None of the matters; Hollywood lost a true talent who died too soon — and about the time he seemed to hitting his stride as an actor.

In memory of Heath Ledger's lasting and memorable contribution to not only the Batman film franchise, but superhero films in general, I present an op-ed I wrote in the summer of 2006. That was when we learned the stunning news that writer-director Christopher Nolan had cast Ledger as The Joker. Enjoy! uses these iconic images
 from various Batman projects on its website.
I considered the news: Heath Ledger has been cast as the Joker. The sides of my mouth turned down slightly (very un-Joker-like, I might add) while my eyebrows went up slightly.

"Hmmm. Interesting," I thought.

That was it. There wasn't really much more of a reaction than that. It certainly wasn't the "WTF?" response Jett the had. (EDITOR'S NOTE: Bill Ramey, better known as "Jett," is the webmaster and creator of the absolutely amazing fan site,

I considered the thought of Ledger as the maniacal Clown Prince of Crime. While I wasn't thrilled, I wasn't offended or shocked either. That was an OK attitude - right?

Warner Bros. used this image of Heath Ledger's creepy Joker
for promotional posters for "The Dark Knight."
Apparently I wasn't the only person to have a similar response. When I enthusiastically shared the news with several of my co-workers, most people reacted as I had: OK — and that was it.

One person who was (almost) as enthusiastic as I was about "Batman Begins" used the same word I did: Interesting. He even hummed afterwards.

Another person in the newsroom said Ledger's casting was "awesome." She also said the actor's smile was a probably a reason director Christopher Nolan chose him. I countered that I hoped it had a lot more to do with Ledger's acting chops.

Judging from the responses on, fans (including Jett and yours truly) never saw it coming. They also don't know what to expect from the actor who got an Oscar nod for "Brokeback Mountain." Ledger was never even on anybody's short list to play the Joker. While people are astonished, they at least are not up in arms.

What an expression!
The Joker (Heath Ledger) smirks from inside a holding cell
in the Gotham City Police Deparment.
A former co-worker said "you got your ear close to the Gotham streets" after my newspaper ran my twice-monthly column with the Ledger as The Joker news four days before Warner Bros. released its statement. He wanted to know "how fans (were) taking the news." I've thought about that time and time again since e-mailing him back and the phrase "unconventional casting" comes to mind.

Maybe that's not a bad thing, my sister (Emily McIntire) told me. (FYI: She thoroughly enjoyed "Begins" and looked forward to the sequel. Keep in mind she had no use for any of the Burton-Schumacher films and doesn't watch super hero films.) My sister said casting Ledger could be Nolan's way of continuing to take his Batman franchise in a different direction. She pointed out you simply got Jack Nicholson with Joker make-up when he was cast in 1988.  …

I fully expected director Nolan to cast a relative unknown. Based on Nolan's casting of Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), I guessed the next Joker would be someone under the Hollywood radar who could blend into the character. I was surprised it was a rising "A-lister" like Ledger.

On the other hand, choosing Ledger fits with Nolan's earlier choices. I expected "Begins" to include nobody familiar. I was surprised high-profile actors such as Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson rounded out the cast opposite Bale, who has played a variety of roles yet disappeared into each one.

Truthfully, I know nothing about Ledger's acting abilities. But that could be an advantage since I won't have the baggage of knowing his earlier work when I see the "The Dark Knight."

I simply hope Ledger makes a believable Joker. He needs a dangerous and psychotic edge, yet should be as charismatic and arbitrary as Nicholson's version and as looney and energetic as the late Cesar Romero's. Nolan has a proven track record in telling intriguing stories and assembling stellar casts; I have no doubt that will continue.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: On Jan. 19, 2008, ran on op-ed I wrote titled "The Battle of the Jokers!" in which I compared and contrasted Ledger's and Nicholson's take on the villain. The piece has made the rounds on the Internet since Bill "Jett" Ramey posted it. **Blushes**)  

Ultimately, I'm taking the same attitude as Jett: Nolan has earned the right to be heard. Take your finger off the "panic" button.

Let's get on board, enjoy the ride and don't prejudge the casting decision -- and get ready for some more exciting sequel news. After all, Bale and Nolan both have been enthusiastic about Ledger being in "The Dark Knight." …

EDITOR'S NOTE: The rest of this op-ed is on "Heath Ledger — An Unconventional Choice" ran Aug. 21, 2006 on BOF (only the greatest and most comprehensive Batman website out there!).

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