Locals remember Heath Ledger as quiet, respectful during filming of 'The Patriot'

McCONNELLS -- During the three days Kitty Wilson-Evans worked with Heath Ledger filming a scene for "The Patriot," he became more than a celebrity to her.

Addressing her as "Miss Kitty" and responding with "Yes, ma'am" or "No, ma'am" whenever she asked him a question, Ledger earned her respect and became her friend.

"Your mom and dad raised you right," she told him. "You're a gentleman."

Wilson-Evans, a re-enactor at Historic Brattonsville, was sad to learn the 28-year-old actor died Tuesday in New York.

According to Associated Press reports, police said his death was caused by a possible drug overdose and appeared to be accidental. However, his autopsy Wednesday was inconclusive. It may take 10 days to determine a definitive cause of death.

Start of a budding career

For many in York County, Ledger's death brought back memories of the quiet, then-20-year-old trying to make his big break as a star acting with Mel Gibson in the Revolutionary War movie filmed in 1999 at Historic Brattonsville.

Phil Warren of Rock Hill spent more than 75 days working as a stunt man with Ledger while filming "The Patriot." Warren was struck in the head by Gibson's ax in one scene and wrestled with Ledger in another.

"He was a tough guy," Warren said. "I know, I fought him hand-to-hand for four days. He was a fun guy. Somewhat shy and reserved -- hard to get close to."

Warren said he enjoyed working with Ledger.

"We went out, partied and drank, like guys do. And I never saw him do any drugs," Warren said. "He was a typical guy; under a lot of pressure, I'm sure."

Former Herald photographer Tracy Smith-Kimball was working as a reporter when "The Patriot" was being filmed. While other reporters chased after Mel Gibson, Smith-Kimball said she kept her eyes on Ledger.

Smith-Kimball was sure Ledger was about to become a big star, she said.

She was right.

He went on to portray a tormented gay cowboy in "Brokeback Mountain," for which he earned an Oscar nomination, and plays the Joker in an upcoming Batman movie, "The Dark Knight."

Ledger was standing off by himself when Smith-Kimball asked for an interview. She later asked him to autograph an article she had written about "The Patriot."

"Yeah, sure," he said, grabbing her pen and using her back to write on.

She still has that paper today.

"When I heard that he had died, I almost cried," Smith-Kimball said. "He was really just the nicest person when I met him."

Wilson-Evans agrees. She and Ledger rode together in a van before filming a scene where she portrayed a slave from Camden. He was full of questions, she said.

"He was just a down-to-earth man talking to an older black woman as a friend," she said.

A special person

Wilson-Evans said after "The Patriot," she's tried to follow Ledger's career. She always mentions him to students when she talks about "The Patriot" and Brattonsville.

"Ladies, he is as fine as you think he is," she would joke with the girls. "I don't usually say that about white boys, but that is one good-looking boy."

As she watches the news channels play back scenes from Ledger's movies in the wake of his death, Wilson-Evans said she isn't mourning like a fan.

"I'm missing him as a person I got to know for three days," she said. "He became a friend. I don't warm up to people very often, but for some reason, I don't know, this young man was a very special person."