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I TOLD HIM TO STOP; Nicholson warned of pill threat as star battled his private hell HEATH LEDGER 1979-2008.

Byline: By TOM PETTIFOR and FIONA CUMMINS, Showbiz Reporter

HE was one of the greatest actors of his generation - but tragic Heath Ledger could not hide his anguish at being parted from his daughter.

Sick at heart and exhausted by crippling insomnia, the Brokeback Mountain star tried to stave off his mounting depression with cocktails of prescription pills.

On Tuesday he was found dead from a suspected accidental overdose.

Drugs nearby included Ambien and Zopiclone sleeping aids, the anti-depressant Zoloft, antianxiety drugs Xanax and Valium and antihistamine Donormyl.

Yesterday as tributes poured in Jack Nicholson - who has spoken out against Ambien - said grimly: "I warned him to stop.

"I tell people about Ambien. Somebody said 'Take this, it's mild'. I almost drove off a cliff 50 yards from my house."

Oscar-nominated Heath, 28, was so besotted with two-year-old daughter Matilda Rose that he said after her birth: "I feel in a sense ready to die because you live on in your child."

He was felled by grief at not being able to see her after splitting with fiancee and Brokeback Mountain co-star Michelle Williams, 27. Weeping Maggie Gilliam, wife of director Terry Gilliam who was working with Heath on his latest movie, said: "He was on prescription drugs because he was dealing with tragedy in his life.

"It was not being with his daughter. It was very, very hard for him. It's a tragedy for everybody who knew him."

Despite Heath's despair, Maggie insisted he was not suicidal.

She and Terry met him for dinner in London a week ago. She said: "He was on great form, sparkling and really relaxed. He was speaking about Matilda.

"He was a fabulous and generous person who threw himself 100 per cent into everything whether it was being a father or an actor."

But fellow actor Jonathan Zarin told of the dark undercurrents in his friend's life. He said: "I'd been hearing for a while that he was in a really bad place."

Heath's naked body was discovered at his New York apartment on Tuesday afternoon by his housekeeper Theresa Solomon and masseuse Diane Lee. A postmortem was inconclusive and toxicology tests are still being carried out.

Sources claimed the apartment was in a "brokedown" state, virtually unfurnished with a mattress on the floor serving as a bed.

In one of his last interviews Heath confessed to taking one Ambien pill after another while filming the new Batman movie The Dark Knight - only to wake an hour later.

He said: "My body was exhausted and my mind was still racing."

At the time of his death he had pneumonia.

Ambien is not recommended for people with respiratory diseases.

Patients prescribed Ambien, sold in the UK as Zolpidem, have driven their cars and had eating binges while still unconscious.

Britain's official medicines watchdog, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, recorded 68 incidents of adverse reactions to Zolpidem between 2001 and 2005.

Michelle flew to New York with Matilda from Sweden after learning the grim news of Heath's death.

She left the star after three years, reportedly concerned by his increasing use of drugs including heroin. Her father Larry said: "My heart goes out to everyone in Heath's family.

"The saddest thing is his daughter who he loved so dearly."

Heath's distraught father Kim paid tribute with his weeping ex-wife Sally and daughter Kate at his side.

Speaking outside the family home in Perth, Australia, he said: "Heath touched so many people. He was a down to earth, generous, kind-hearted, lifeloving and selfless individual."

Supermodel Helena Christensen, 39, was on her way to visit Heath when told of his death.

She said: "I am beyond sad and shocked. I had just left him a message and heard his voice on the machine. He was genuine person, so extraordinarily talented, raw and honest."

Mel Gibson, who played Heath's father in The Patriot, said: "He was just taking off and to lose his life at such a young age is a tragic loss."

Nicole Kidman said: "What a terrible, terrible tragedy. My heart goes out to his family."

Former co-star Cate Blanchett added: "I deeply respect Heath's work and always admired him."

Warner Bros said : "The studio is stunned and devastated by this tragic news. The entertainment community has lost an enormous talent."

Australian Premier Kevin Rudd said: "We've lost one of our nation's finest actors in the prime of his life."

Heath's death forced President Bush to postpone the launch of a campaign aimed at preventing the abuse of prescription drugs.

The White House said: "We thought it'd be better to postpone the event rather than run the risk of anyone thinking we were opportunistic."

One fundamentalist US church plans to picket the star's funeral because of his role as a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain.

Branding Heath a "pervert", the rampantly homophobic Baptist Church in Kansas said: "He is now in Hell."

tom.pettifor@mirror.co.uk

What he was on..

AMBIEN

Sleeping pill. Patients report binge-eating and driving while unconscious after taking. Known in Britain as Zolpidem.

VALIUM

Used for insomnia and anxiety. Can cause dizziness and depression.

Should not be taken with anti-depressants.

ZOLOFT

Most popular antidepressant in US. Said to carry lower risk of suicide than other drugs. Also known as Sertraline.

XANAX

Treats anxiety disorders. Success is reduced if taken for more than eight weeks. Highly addictive.

Can cause hallucinations.

ZOPLICONE

One of the most addictive sleeping pills. Patients can suffer increased heart rate, mood changes, anxiety and fatigue.

DONORMYL

Antihistamine with common side-effects of drowsi - ness, insomnia and anxiety. Users should check before taking with others drugs.

CAPTION(S):

STUNNED: Dad Kim with Sally and Kate; DOOM: Heath was in turmoil; LOVERS: Heath and Michelle in 2005
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 24, 2008
Words:958
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