The talented 28-year-old Hollywood actor who gravitated toward dark, brooding roles that defied his leading-man looks, was found dead on Tuesday in a Manhattan apartment, face-down and naked at the foot of his bed with prescription sleeping pills nearby, police said.
There was no obvious indication that the Australian-born Ledger had committed suicide, NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said.
Ledger had an appointment for a massage at the SoHo apartment that is believed to be the home of the Brokeback Mountain actor, Browne said.
The massage therapist and a housekeeper found his naked body in the bed at about 3:30 pm. They tried to revive him, but he was already dead.
"We are all deeply saddened and shocked by this accident," Ledger's publicist, Mara Buxbaum, said in a statement Tuesday night.
"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."
Outside the building on an upscale street, paparazzi and gawkers gathered, and several police officers put up barricades to control the crowd of about 300.
Onlookers craned their necks as officers brought out a black body bag on a gurney, took it across the sidewalk and put it into a white medical examiner's office van.
As the door opened, bystanders snapped pictures with camera phones, rolled video, and said, "He's coming out!"
An autopsy was planned for Wednesday, medical examiner's office spokeswoman Ellen Borakove said.
While not a marquee movie star, Ledger was an award-winning actor who chose his roles carefully rather than cashing in on big-money parts.
He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain, where he met Michelle Williams, who played his wife in the film.
Heath Ledger's last pictures