Australian actor Heath Ledger, 28, whose searing performance in

Brokeback Mountain

won universal acclaim and an indelible place in cinematic history, was found dead in a downtown Manhattan apartment yesterday afternoon.

New York police said drugs may have been a factor, though the cause of death is under investigation. Sleeping pills were found at the scene, according to police.

"It is a great screen performance, as good as the best of Marlon Brando and Sean Penn," the New York Times' Stephen Holden raved of Mr. Ledger's 2005 spare, Oscar-nominated performance as laconic Ennis Del Mar, who struggles with his forbidden love for a fellow ranch hand, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, in 1963 Wyoming. The Inquirer's Carrie Rickey called it "a shattering performance."

Mr. Ledger followed up that role as the title character in Casanova, going from a repressed homosexual felled by the loss of his one true love to a voluble, serial seducer of women.

"I feel like I'm wasting time if I repeat myself. I can't say I'm proud of my work," he said in an interview with the New York Times. "I feel the same way about everything I do. The day I say, 'It's good' is the day I should start doing something else."

Mr. Ledger most recently appeared in I'm Not There, Todd Haynes' rumination on Bob Dylan. He had completed work as The Joker, in the Batman movie The Dark Knight, scheduled for release this summer, and was cast in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus at the time of his death.

Mr. Ledger was a tall, strapping heartthrob from Perth, with unruly hair, a warm grumble of a voice, and a granite jaw. He began acting at age 13 and four years later, he moved to Sydney to pursue better roles. Mr. Ledger initially landed parts for his good looks but kept winning them with his range and agility, proving he was equally adept at comedy and drama.

After working in Australian television, Mr. Ledger played opposite Julia Stiles in Ten Things I Hate About You (1999), a modern take on The Taming of the Shrew. Then, intent on tackling more demanding roles, he announced he was done with teen comedies.

His big break came in 2000 when he played opposite fellow Australian Mel Gibson, as Gibson's son in The Patriot. Other roles included that of Billy Bob Thornton's son in Monster's Ball (2001) and a surfer in The Lords of Dogtown (2005). Of his lead role in the 2001 rock-and-roll medieval hit, A Knight's Tale, Mr. Ledger said: "It's a little uncomfortable doing love scenes in armor, but, you know, when the heat's on, the heat's on."

Despite initial concerns about its commercial appeal, Brokeback Mountain became one of Mr. Ledger's greatest box-office successes, grossing $83 million, second only to The Patriot's $113 million.

On the set of Brokeback Mountain, Mr. Ledger fell in love with actress Michelle Williams, who played his unloved wife.

The couple had a daughter, Matilda, in October 2005, and made a home in Brooklyn, but separated last year.

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Contact staff writer Karen
Heller at 215-854-2586 or
The Associated Press contributed to this article.