He’s hot. He’s sexy. And he’s dead.

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Hot, sexy, and dead. Jim Morrison? No — Heath Ledger.

Ledger has been dead nearly three months, and his career is hotter than ever. He’s generating buzz through a successful viral marketing campaign for his role as the Joker in the forthcoming Dark Night. And he just can’t stay out off the cover of entertainment magazines, as witnessed by his latest appearance on the cover of the April 14 People.

As an actor, Ledger lacked the resume of Roy Scheider, whose death on February 10 merited nothing more than a few respecful nods of appreciation. As a star, he was nowhere near the level that Will Smith is. So why in death is he bigger than he ever was in life? Let’s break down the reasons:

He died unexpectedly. It’s a common misconception that the news media favor negative news. No, they like the unexpected, both good and bad. And certainly Heath Ledger’s death at age 28 qualified. By contrast. most newspaper writers probably had Roy Scheider’s obit ready before he died at age 75.

He died mysteriously. Had he died in a car crash, say, like Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, we would have seen the predictable outpouring of shock and grief, then a gradual ebb in news coverage. But almost instantly, his death raised questions that kept his name in the public eye for many days. How, exactly, had he died? And what was up with the masseuse who called Mary-Kate Olsen (of all people) after discovering Ledger unconscious in his apartment? It would take two weeks for his cause of death to be determined — and the two-week window generated a frenzy of press coverage. And now, months later, People magazine wants to know whether he fathered a secret child. (I can just picture the “Why can’t the media leave Heath alone?” letters of protest from readers after snatching up their copies at newsstands, of course.) He’s the dream of the paparazzi, unraveling more delicious tidbits of news like layers of an onion.

He was on the verge of greatness. Dying young and unexpectedly is no guarantee of postmortem succcess. Actor Brad Renfro died at age 25 of a drug overdose. Not only was his January 2008 death eclipsed by Ledger’s in a matter of days, but his career was ordinary, which made his demise terribly unnewsworthy. By contrast — and this is crucial — Ledger was on the cusp of becoming great, but not quite there. Lost potential is the kind of story that even the most stodgy news media love the most, even more so than potential realized. (What’s the news in achieving your potential if it was expected?) His turn in Brokeback Mountain earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in 2006, and his upcoming portrayal of the Joker had the industry buzzing before his death, but his was a talent not yet fully realized.

His death was serendipitous. The heartfelt, and genuinely great “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” became a monster hit for Otis Redding after his death in a 1967 plane crash — a moment of undeniable career serendipity. The Dark Night looks like it’s going to be a hugely entertaining blockbuster based on its stunning movie trailer alone, in which Ledger manages to show flashes of brilliance in just seconds. The movie has also been aided by an effective viral marketing campaign. So if you think you’re tired of seeing Ledger’s name in the public eye, just brace yourself: come July 18, get ready for another tidal wave of Heath Ledger fascination, when The Dark Knight hits U.S. theaters. And in this case, the attention should be well deserved.

The paparazzi groundswell. Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li just published an insightful book, The Groundswell, which examines the phenomenon of people using online tools to get information from each other instead of from companies. I don’t know that this is what Josh and Charlene had in mind, but the digital paparazzi have created a groundswell of biblical proportions. Heath Ledger’s death 10 years ago would have generated a wave of slickly produced coverage from predictable institutions like MTV and Us. But now you need to add to the mix an explosion of independent celebrity bloggers like Perez Hilton, who provide a blizzard of minute-by-minute coverage that feeds upon itself and generates content for the offline media — thus keeping the Heath Ledgers of the world in our faces, online and offline, in an never-ending news cycle. (Remember, it was a blogsite, TMZ, that broke the story of Mel Gibson’s drunk driving arrest followed by an anti-Semitic tirade in 2006.) You know the paparazzi have become an entity unto themselves when they make the cover of The Atlantic.

Hot, sexy, and dead. That’s how Rolling Stone characterized Jim Morrison’s resurgence of popularity 10 years after he died, in one of the most notorious magazine covers of all time. For Heath Ledger, the career renaissance took hold in 10 minutes.

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