Heath Ledger’s death changed Gambol’s fate in The Dark Knight, says Michael Jai White

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Jan 17, 2020, 1:51 PM EST (Updated)

The 2008 passing of Heath Ledger after delivering his Academy Award-winning performance as the Joker rippled profound effects through both the professional and personal lives of his colleagues — not only on the set of The Dark Knight, but through the wider entertainment industry.

But one fascinating (and decidedly more ephemeral) bit of on-screen fallout from the actor’s untimely death is the fate of Michael Jai White’s Gambol, the mob boss who provided the reluctant listening ear for the Joker’s famous “Why so serious?” speech. 

In a retrospective interview looking back at the 10th anniversary of director Christopher Nolan’s landmark film, White told The Hollywood Reporter that he never shot a death scene for Gambol, and that he didn’t know Nolan had decided to kill off the character until seeing for himself the way it all unfolded onscreen in the final cut. 

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"I was as surprised as anybody. The next few moments after Gambol hit the ground, I was in a state of confusion, like 'What the hell happened? I guess I am not coming back,’” White explained, adding that the original plan was for the Joker not to kill Gambol, but to scar him with the same ghoulish rictus that gave Ledger’s character his permanent disfigurement.

But the change didn’t offend White at all, he said. ”…I have a producer's and director's mind-set, so I was able to look at it and think, 'I guess they must have wanted to go this way.’"

It’s a scene that stands out distinctly in White’s memory not only from his time shooting The Dark Knight, but from his entire acting career. Why? Because Ledger made a huge impression on him when he straight up asked White for advice on how to arrive at his now-iconic voice for the scene — a rare showing of modesty in an environment that’s sometimes infamous for actors’ arrogance. 

“[N]o one had ever done that before,” White said. ”Not one actor in my lifetime had asked my opinion in that way. And that taught me to do that with others, to not succumb to my ego.”

Off camera, White said he and Ledger on the Dark Knight set over…magic tricks? 

“He and I were trading a lot of magic tricks…He picked up some sleight of hand stuff, and I'm kind of an amateur magician myself,” White said, adding that  “we couldn't wait to finish the shot so we could go back to doing that stuff.”

Fans of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy would be the first to tell you that kind of magic wasn’t just relegated to the studio lot. For both audiences and critics, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises have remained among the most successful DC films Warner Bros. has ever produced. 

With The Dark Knight officially turning ten years old this week, there’s no time like the present to load the movie up once more to revisit Ledger’s landmark performance…and to rewatch that Gambol death scene, with White’s new remarks providing a fresh perspective.