A year and a half or so ago, I pulled up to a stop sign in Los Feliz, California, a neighborhood near my house, and had to sorta hit the brakes because I’d realized almost too late that someone was about to step out into the street. I stopped short and a beat later a young man in pretty funky clothes — knee-high red stripped socks — who looked like he’d just come in from Haight Asbury, circa 1967, walked in front of the car. As he passed he turned to me and nodded, firmly, and with a tight-lipped half smile, as if to say, “Thanks for stoppin’, man”. It was Heath Ledger. His hair was long and he was growing a beard and I thought, “Oh, he’s getting ready to go play Bob Dylan.” The actor sauntered past and then, two paces behind, actress Michelle Williams appeared in my window frame, her hair surprisingly short, prep, I'd later realize, for that same Dylan movie. She was looking down, looking serious, her hands supporting Matilda Rose, the couple’s baby daughter, who was snug and asleep in a harness slung across her mother’s chest. Wrapped in a yellow shawl, Williams looked like a time-warp hippie too. They were a lovely sight, those three, and would have been even if the parents weren’t movie stars.
It was a good sighting, an L.A. moment, common really, in these parts. I think I only told one or two people about it, but the image of that new family — the young father clearing the way for mother and child — stayed with me. When I heard last year that Heath and Michelle had separated, I flashed on them walking past me that morning — he striding confidently, she lost in thought, and I hoped that a path back to such moments would somehow open up before them. It never did and now they’re out of time, that family. Heath Ledger is gone and I don’t have anything profound to say about that except to admit that I can’t help thinking — with a surprising bit of anger — that making movies killed him. I have no right to presume such a thing; I know nothing of his true self, his true life. But I do yearn to go back to that morning and roll down the window and stick my head out and say: Hey. Heath. Stay home. Dylan and The Joker and that nutty-looking Terry Gilliam movie you’ll be filming when you die — not worth it. Thrilling work, and a head-rush to pull off, I bet, but not worth it. You have genius in you, mister, but movies are never better than life, especially when a really good one presents itself. Those of us who are a little bit afraid of life need guys like you to act it out for us, but tonight I’d trade those films and those performances for the knowledge that you’re safe at home, guarding the fort, tending your soul, and watching that baby grow.