Heath Ledger, the talented 28-year-old actor who gravitated toward dark, brooding roles that defied his leading-man looks, was found dead in a Manhattan, New York apartment, face down at the foot of his bed with prescription sleeping pills nearby, police said.
Speaking on Tuesday night, New York Police Department (NYPD) spokesman Paul Browne said "Mr Ledger's body was discovered by a masseuse and a housekeeper. The masseuse had an appointment, a regular appointment, and they found the deceased at about 2.45, 3.00 o'clock this afternoon, unresponsive in his bedroom."
There was no obvious indication that the Australian-born Ledger had committed suicide, Browne added.
The massage therapist and a housekeeper found his naked body at about 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday, police said. 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 on 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 Manhattan apartment building, paparazzi and onlookers 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 bodybag on a gurney, took it across the sidewalk and put it into a medical examiner's office van.
Outside the Brooklyn apartment that Ledger had once shared with actress Michelle Williams, a neighbour said he didn't behave like a normal film star.
"From the little that I saw of him living just a few doors down, he just seemed like a really sweet neighbourhoody kind of guy, very down to earth. (They) sort of kept to themselves, sort of the antithesis of whatever stars are supposed to be like."
An autopsy was planned for Wednesday, medical examiner's office spokeswoman Ellen Borakove said.
His family in Perth family rejected any suggestion on Wednesday that the actor had killed himself and joined fellow Australians in mourning one of their rising stars.
Members of Ledger's family faced a throng of media gathered in the actor's hometown of Perth, in the state of Western Australia, and read a prepared statement saying his death was accidental.
"We can confirm the very tragic, untimely and accidental passing of our dearly loved son, brother and doting father of Matilda. Heath has touched so many people on so many different levels during his short life, but few had the pleasure of truly knowing him," Heath's father Kim said, standing with his wife Sally and daughter Kate.
Kim Ledger remembered his son as a "down to earth, generous, kind-hearted, life-loving, unselfish individual" who was "extremely inspirational" to those who knew him.
Ledger was an award-winning actor who chose his roles carefully rather than cashing in on big-money parts. He was nominated for a best-actor Oscar for his performance as a gay cowboy in "Brokeback Mountain."
During filming, he met Michelle Williams, who played his wife in the film.
The two had a daughter, now 2-year-old Matilda, and lived together in Brooklyn, New York until they split up last year.
Though his leading man looks propelled him to early stardom in films like "10 Things I Hate About You" and "A Knight's Tale," his career took a notable turn toward dramatic and brooding roles with 2001's "Monster's Ball."
Ledger eschewed Hollywood glitz in favor of a bohemian life in Brooklyn, where he became one of the borough's most famous residents.
"Brokeback" would be his breakthrough role, establishing him as one of his generation's finest talents and an actor willing to take risks.
Ledger began to gravitate more towards independent fare, including Lasse Hallstrom's "Casanova" and Terry Gilliam's "The Brothers Grimm," both released in 2005.
In his 2006 film "Candy," Ledger played a poet wrestling with a heroin addiction along with his girlfriend, played by Abbie Cornish.
Recently, he co-starred in "I'm Not There," in which he played one of the many incarnations of Bob Dylan - as did fellow Australian Cate Blanchett, whose performance in that film earned an Oscar nomination on Tuesday for best supporting actress.
And in what may be his final finished performance, Ledger proved that he would not be intimidated by taking on a character as iconic as Jack Nicholson's Joker. Ledger's version of the "Batman" villain, glimpsed in early teaser trailers, made it clear that his Joker would be more depraved and dark.
Ledger told The New York Times in a November interview that he "stressed out a little too much" during the Dylan film and had trouble sleeping while portraying the Joker, whom he called a "psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy."
Ledger was born in 1979 to a mining engineer and a French teacher and got his first acting role playing Peter Pan at the age of 10 in a local theatre company.
He began acting in independent films as a 16-year-old in Sydney and played a cyclist hoping to land a spot on an Olympic team in a 1996 television show, "Seat."
After several independent films, Ledger moved to Los Angeles at age 19 and starred opposite Julia Stiles in "10 Things I Hate About You."