Shock, Grief as Family, Friends, Colleagues Mourn Heath Ledger

In Heath Ledger's native Australia, where the actor as a teen heartthrob had set the local entertainment industry afire years before American audiences got their first glimpse of the blonde star, fans and colleagues are mourning the loss of a promising talent who had been anointed the heir apparent to the mega-watt legacy of Aussie exports Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe.

"It is equal parts shock and dismay, a waste of a talent," Michael Bodey, film reporter for The Australian, said of the Australian reaction to news of the actor's death in his New York City apartment Tuesday. "He was always one of the most interesting and intriguing actors to interview," Bodey said.

The news rocked Hollywood's tight-knit group of Australian actors.

"What a terrible tragedy. My heart goes out to Heath's family," fellow Aussie actress Nicole Kidman told London's Daily Telegraph.

Informed of the news at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, actress Naomi Watts, Ledger's former long-term flame and "Ned Kelly" co-star, reportedly broke down in tears.

In Hollywood, where one of Ledger's first major U.S. roles was playing Mel Gibson's son in "The Patriot," Gibson issued a statement calling Ledger's death "a tragic loss."

“I had such great hope for him. He was just taking off and to lose his life at such a young age is a tragic loss," Gibson said in the statement. "My thoughts and prayers are with him and his family.”

Cate Blanchett, who starred with Ledger in the Bob Dylan bio-flick "I'm Not There," said she was "shocked and saddened" at the news.

"I deeply respect Heath's work and always admired his continuing development as an artist," Blanchett said in a statement published by News Ltd. newspapers online. "My thoughts are with his family and close friends."

Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Australia had lost one of its brightest talents and that his more challenging roles would be remembered "as some of the great performances by an Australian actor."

In a statement read by Ledger's father, Keith Ledger, on Australian television, Ledger's family expressed their shock at his "untimely and accidental" death, language aimed at thwarting media speculation that what appeared Tuesday to be a drug overdose could have been a suicide.

Bodey, who had interviewed Ledger several times throughout his career, said the media frenzy surrounding Ledger's death would be particularly difficult for his family because of Ledger's rocky relationship with the Australian press -- he reportedly did not live in Australia because of the paparazzi's relentless pursuit.

While Ledger was never comfortable with being branded a superstar, or the media attention that came with that, he was a gifted and dedicated artist who loved the craft of acting, Bodey said.

"He was quite generous and willing to take part in the creative aspect of his business," Bodey said. "He never came to enjoy the business side of show business, but was a talented actor only now beginning to hit his stride."

In recent years, Ledger had made his home in New York City, where, Bodey said, he found relief from the media spotlight he loathed. On Tuesday night, residents of his lower Manhattan neighborhood were devastated by the news of his death.

"I'm very, very sad," said Tamba Mossa, the superintendent of the building where Ledger had been living for the past four or five months. "I wasn't prepared to hear about his death at that moment. He was a very great man," Mossa said.

Mossa said Ledger had recently "looked sad."

Following an Oscar nomination for 2005's "Brokeback Mountain," Ledger's career was expected to skyrocket with his upcoming appearance as The Joker in "The Dark Night," the latest Warner Bros. installment in the "Batman" franchise slated for release in July 2008.

"The studio is stunned and devastated by this tragic news," Warner Bros. president Alan Horn told London's Daily Telegraph. "The entertainment community has lost an enormous talent. Heath was a brilliant actor and an exceptional person. Our hearts go out to his family and friends," Horn said.

In a statement released Tuesday night, Ledger's publicist Mara Buxbaum asked the public and the media to respect the family's privacy.

"We are all deeply saddened and shocked by this accident," Buxbaum said in the statement. "This is an extremely difficult time for his loved ones and we are asking the media to please respect the family's privacy and avoid speculation until the facts are known."

Ledger, who earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a gay cowboy in 2005's "Brokeback Mountain," was found dead Tuesday at his downtown Manhattan residence, naked in bed with sleeping pills in the apartment, police said. He was 28.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.