NEW YORK (Reuters) - Actor Heath Ledger, the gifted leading man acclaimed for his role as a gay cowboy in the film "Brokeback Mountain," was found dead in his Manhattan apartment on Tuesday, possibly of a drug overdose, police said.
The Australian-born Ledger, 28, was found face down and naked at the foot of the bed by a housekeeper at his apartment in the SoHo neighborhood, police spokesman Paul Browne said.
He was pronounced dead at the scene but no cause had been determined.
"We are investigating the possibility of an overdose. ... There were pills within the vicinity of the bed," Browne said, adding that the prescription medicine included sleeping pills.
The housekeeper found Ledger at 3:26 p.m., and tried to wake him for his appointment with a masseuse, who was also in the home, Browne said.
A medical examiner conducted a preliminary investigation and Ledger's body was wheeled out of the fifth-floor apartment in a stretcher, covered in a black body bag, about three hours after he was found.
Screen star Mel Gibson, who starred alongside Ledger in the film "The Patriot," said his thoughts and prayers were with the younger actor's family.
"I had such great hope for him," Gibson said in a statement released by his publicist. "He was just taking off and to lose his life at such a young age is a tragic loss."
Ledger was nominated for an Academy Award as best lead actor for 2005's "Brokeback Mountain," but the Oscar went to Philip Seymour Hoffman for his role as Truman Capote. Ledger did win a New York Film Critics Circle award for the role.
The handsome star last year broke up with actress Michelle Williams, who played his wife in "Brokeback" and was the real-life mother of their 2-year-old daughter, Matilda.
He once said he was ready to die because he could live on in his child.
"Having a child changes every aspect of your life -- for the better, of course. The sacrifices are large, but what you get in return is even bigger than the sacrifices you make. I feel, in a sense, ready to die because you are living on in your child," Ledger told In Touch Weekly in November.
The couple tried to keep a low profile by living in Brooklyn but still appeared often in the gossip pages. He moved to Manhattan after the breakup.
"He was a very simple guy. You wouldn't know he was an actor unless you saw him on TV," Tamba Mossa, the building's superintendent, told reporters.
A crowd of about 200 people and 75 reporters gathered outside his building on Broome Street, with fans snapping pictures on their cell phones.
"I feel a bit silly being one of the ones gawking, but it's horribly sad. In 'Brokeback Mountain,' it was one of the first times I was moved by an actor of my own generation," said Drew Klein, 25, who works in film production.
"He means a lot to us. We look up to actors like Heath Ledger," said Jack Payne, 20, an acting student.
Ledger's other film credits included "Monster's Ball" and the title role in "Casanova." He was due to appear this year as The Joker in the next Batman film by Warner Bros., "The Dark Knight," which completed filming.
He stars in the currently playing "I'm Not There," one of several actors playing a role representing Bob Dylan.
"The studio is stunned and devastated by this tragic news. The entertainment community has lost an enormous talent," Alan Horn, president and COO of Warner Bros. and Jeff Robinov, president of Warner Bros. Pictures Group, said in a statement.
"Heath was a brilliant actor and an exceptional person. Our hearts go out to his family and friends."
Additional reporting by Christine Kearney and Sven Lindahl in New York and Dan Whitcomb, Steve Gorman and Gina Keating in Los Angeles; writing by Daniel Trotta; editing by Todd Eastham