Written By: Andrea Tuccillo

We all know the bittersweet story of The Dark Knight by now. Heath Ledger gives a masterful performance, one that crowds and critics alike have gone wild for. A role so transformative it’s garnering him comparisons to Brando. Sadly, though, Ledger’s story will forever have more in common with James Dean‘s. Both promising young actors taken too soon.

But lest we get too depressed about the tragedy of it all, let’s consider Ledger’s final gift to the movies and to us: a smiley, sadistic little villain called The Joker. From the nonchalant way he revels in chaos right down to that pitch-perfect maniacal laugh, Heath Ledger is The Joker. He’s all at once creepy, funny—iconic. Consider the way he makes a pencil “disappear” early on in the film, or the way he almost-genuinely tells the Batman “You complete me.” He flipped our idea of this recognizable villain, smeared it with ugly clown paint, and made even the staunchest critics demand a posthumous Oscar nomination.

To hear director Christopher Nolan tell it, the ideas were all Ledger’s own. “I knew he could take any kind of role and disappear into it,” Nolan told USA Today. “I needed someone who could take this very iconic but absurd role — the guy dresses in a purple jacket, for God’s sake — and do something haunting, something serious with it.”

The Joker’s voice, at times sing-songy and nerdish, and at other times downright menacing, was inspired by an unlikely influence. Ledger studied the way ventriloquist dummies talked, and mimicked that spooky, hollow quality. “He wouldn’t even really rehearse with the voice,” Christian Bale told USA Today. “He held it back a little, waiting for the cameras to roll. But when they did, we knew he was on to something special.” Even The Joker’s messily applied “mask” came from Ledger’s own experiments with face paint.

In the films’ earliest stages, Ledger hinted at the different approach he was taking. “I guess if I was a fan of a comic book character it would probably be the Joker,” Ledger said in an interview for his film Candy. “I was motivated by the offer, the opportunity to play this guy. Somewhere inside, I just kind of knew instinctively what to do with it.”

He strived to create a unique Joker, one that hadn’t been seen on screen before. “I was definitely a fan of what Jack Nicholson did in the world that Tim Burton created,” Ledger said during a press conference for his film I’m Not There. “And I can tell you right now that if Tim Burton was directing The Dark Knight and he came and asked me do it I would say no, I couldn’t. You couldn’t reproduce what Jack did and so the reason why I so confidently stepped in their shoes was when [director] Chris [Nolan] asked me, I had seen Batman Begins and I knew the world in which he created and I also knew that there was different angle to be taken and so that’s why I did it.”

And while some speculated that the intensity of The Joker contributed to Ledger’s anxiety before his death, an interview with Ledger found on MovieWeb shows clearly that wasn’t the case. “That was the most fun I’ve ever had, and probably will have, playing a character,” Ledger said in a statement that’s now tinged with irony. “It was hard stamina-wise. It was just a high-level of energy was needed, required every day but it was incredibly enjoyable.”

With The Dark Knight, Ledger leaves behind a legacy–a final glimpse into a staggering talent that was all too fleeting.