Friends close to Australian actor Heath Ledger tell me his tragic death Monday was not a suicide.

“He wasn’t like that,” said one person I knew who knew him well.

I have to agree, and I’ll be mighty surprised if an autopsy determines otherwise. Ledger may have had his problems, but in the many times I talked to him — including several times in the last year — there was no indication of that at all.

“Please don’t let the tabloids do this to him,” said a friend.

Ledger, who died today at age 28, was a popular actor in the industry. Already an Oscar nominee (for "Brokeback Mountain"), he represented the best of a new generation of actors.

The news of death has spread quickly around the Sundance Film Festival, putting a damper on just about everything. Within an hour, people who knew him everywhere look, simply, stunned.

As one agent said, “He had everything going for him.” Another studio head said, “It’s terrible for so many reasons.”

The main reason is that Heath Ledger was a nice guy. In fact, at a party last year for his movie, “I’m Not There,” in which he plays a version of Bob Dylan, Ledger could not have been nicer or more upbeat.

Yes, it was true that as a newly single hot Hollywood movie star, he was out having a good time. But he was also still the same person I met nearly seven years ago at a small dinner following a private screening of “A Knight’s Tale.”

The screening wasn’t long after he’d made a big impression as Mel Gibson’s axe-wielding son in “The Patriot.” But one look at Heath as a rockin’ knight and it was very clear he would be a big movie star in weeks.

That night, I remember everyone talking about what Ledger’s life would be like, how much he missed Australia and all the exciting changes coming in his life. I think the conversation made an impression on all of us. As Ledger’s career grew, he never failed to greet me warmly at a party or in our neighborhood as someone he recalled from his “early days.”

Ledger’s roles were not designed for someone who wanted to be a movie star, particularly. With his blonde surfer good looks he could have jumped right in to Brad Pitt’s shoes. But the choices were unusual, such as a small part in Marc Forster’s “Monster’s Ball” with Halle Berry, playing Billy Bob Thornton’s son. He’s only in the movie briefly, but he knew it was an important film and wanted to be part of it. You can’t say that of any other actor his age trying to work his way up the ladder quickly.

I’ve no doubt the next few days will bring a slew of gossipy, speculative stories from “good friends” and “close sources” who can’t wait to tell something awful about Heath to anyone who will listen. Or pay. So let’s get a grip until some facts come out.

And in the meantime, say a prayer for a great guy who had a tough time living halfway around the world from where he grew up, having to deal with a life that is never easy.