SYDNEY (Reuters) - Shocked Australians were on Wednesday mourning the death of actor Heath Ledger in a New York apartment possibly from a drug overdose, but his family said the death was a tragic accident.
Ledger, 28, the gifted leading man acclaimed for his role as a gay cowboy in the film "Brokeback Mountain," was found naked at the foot of the bed by his housekeeper in what police said was a possible drug overdose. An autopsy is to be conducted.
"We, Heath's family, can confirm the very tragic, untimely and accidental passing of our dearly loved son, brother and doting father of Matilda," his father Kim said, reading from a statement outside the family home in Perth, in Western Australia.
Ledger's mother Sally and sister Kate gathered with Kim Ledger at the family's suburban home and said they wanted to be left to grieve in private.
"We would like to thank our friends and everyone around the world for their well-wishes and kind thoughts at this time," Kim Ledger said.
"Heath has touched so many people on so many different levels during his short life that few had the pleasure of truly knowing him," he said.
People and neighbors left flowers and cards outside the house where Ledger spent much of December and January on holiday visiting friends.
"What a terrible tragedy. My heart goes out to his family," actress and fellow Australian Nicole Kidman said.
"I am so upset, I just can't tell you," said Margaret Pomeranz, one of Australia's top film critics.
"It's just such an incredible waste. I mean he is such a talented boy and ... a beautiful soul," she told local radio.
The handsome star was reported last year to have broken up with his long-time companion, actress Michelle Williams, who played his wife in "Brokeback" and was the real-life mother of the actor's young daughter, Matilda.
Ledger was found face down at the foot of the bed at his apartment in New York's SoHo neighborhood, police spokesman Paul Browne said.
"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. (2026 GMT), and tried to wake him for his appointment with a masseuse, who was also in the home, Browne said.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the country had lost one of the nation's top actors in the prime of his life.
"Heath Ledger's diverse and challenging roles will be remembered as some of the great performances by an Australian actor," Rudd said in a statement.
Ledger was one of the younger members of what Australian media have nicknamed the "Aussie Hollywood Mafia," which includes Kidman, Russell Crowe, Naomi Watts and Hugh Jackman.
Ledger's other films included "The Patriot," in which he starred alongside Mel Gibson, "Monster's Ball," "The Brothers Grimm," "Casanova" and "Ned Kelly," a film about Australia's legendary bushranger.
He is currently starring in "I'm Not There," one of several actors playing a role representing Bob Dylan, and was due to appear as The Joker in the next Batman film.
Ledger's success attracted the inevitable paparazzi, which he blamed for driving him from Australia back to the United States, where he thought he could be more anonymous.
"He was a young boy in many ways, still a boy when he left Perth and got into this whirlwind of his career," said Neil Armfield, who directed Ledger in the 2006 Australian romantic drama Candy.
"We saw with his relationship with the paparazzi that he was vulnerable and felt intensely invaded and got so unbelievably distressed. The photographers would try to push him into a reaction and he was a young man so he would react."
Additional reporting by Rob Taylor in Canberra, editing by David Fogarty