A deeper look back at the lives of Paul Newman, Heath Ledger, Tim Russert, Charlton Heston, and other loved entertainers written by the artists who knew them best, including Martin Scorsese, Mel Gibson, Brian Williams, and more

By EW Staff
December 17, 2008 at 05:00 AM EST
Ben Watts/Corbis Outline

April 4, 1979?Jan. 22, 2008
By Mel Gibson

When I first met Heath, he was 21 years old and I was 42, just at the end of my prime. And because I was the same age when my career really kicked off and we were both from Australia, I saw myself in him. When he came in to audition for The Patriot, he was very nervous and very humble. I had auditioned with quite a few guys and his audition was by no means the most polished. But he got the gig because of some kind of weird honest thing that was intrinsic to him. He was just authentic and sincere. He had this magnetism; this X-factor and we all just wanted to watch the guy. He was just so clearly meant to do this.

On set, I felt a real connection with this kid. He had all the raw stuff. There was always a little angst involved. I didn’t think he knew the power he had yet, so he’d work himself up, trying to get at things that were already there. You almost wanted to say, ‘Dude, just calm down and be yourself. It?s good.’ But the beauty of what he did was that, on screen, you never saw any of the angst; you just saw a confident rendering.

Afterwards, I was always very interested in his choices and his work. He was a smart guy, following his gut-instinct and making unorthodox choices. He wasn’t going for sensationalism. That stuff followed him. It’s very difficult when, as a young man, fame is handed to you on a platter. I figured he was down to earth enough and intelligent enough to survive and eventually figure it out. And I think he was doing that. He was looking for a way to fulfill himself in his art and in who he was. And when he passed, he was just about to take the next step. What he did in The Dark Knight was just great. The terrible tragedy of his loss is all that potential. I think his next ten years would have been really interesting. And that’s the shame of it: I wanted see what he was going to do next.

Ledger, 28, died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs in New York City.