Like you, the folks here at EW HQ thought it was a cruel hoax when reports started surfacing this afternoon that Heath Ledger was dead at 28, the second promising young star in less than a week to die. The exact cause and circumstances surrounding his death are still unknown, but we can only hope that the performer will be remembered mainly for his all-too-brief but triumphant acting career.

Most fans will remember Ledger for his Oscar-nominated turn in Brokeback Mountain (pictured), as well they should. His role marks one of the great, astonishing acting transformations of our time. I loved Ledger’s early, lighter work — his goofy romantic lead in the teen-Shakespeare farce 10 Things I Hate About You, his sly, tongue-in-cheek turn as a medieval sports hero in A Knight’s Tale — and I even enjoyed his dramatic posturing as the callow rebel of The Patriot and the resentful son of Monster’s Ball. But I’d never have guessed that he had that Brokeback performance in him. From his slow gait to his swallowed baritone speech, his lonesome cowpoke Ennis seemed like a brand new person, yet one the actor fully inhabited. Indeed, it’s now impossible to imagine that any of his contemporaries could have done a better job, so indelible is Ledger’s performance. And who didn’t cry at the end when he said, “Jack, I swear…”?

After Brokeback, Ledger’s characters began to take a darker turn. There was the drug-addiction drama Candy,which I fear I’ll never be able to watch again without cringing, andhis forthcoming turn as a bedraggled, scary-looking Joker in thissummer’s Batman Begins sequel The Dark Knight.I’m sure no one will be able to watch that one either without seeingunintended ironies and eerie portents of doom. It’s always facile toread an actor’s off-screen life into his choice of roles (if you sawLedger’s depiction of Bob Dylan’s crumbling marriage in the recent I’m Not There,you could be forgiven for being reminded of the recent dissolution ofLedger’s off-screen union with Michelle Williams), but still, for now,I prefer to remember the jokey, cheerful, cheeseball Ledger of Knight’s Tale and 10 Things, movies enhanced by the sense they conveyed that Ledger was thoroughly enjoying himself. It’ll be a while before I can watch Brokeback again without getting misty-eyed for the wrong reason.