New York As Chris Finegan watched Heath Ledger's stunning portrayal of the Joker on Friday in "The Dark Knight," he couldn't help but think of another actor who wasn't on the screen: James Dean, who also died prematurely and tragically, nearly 53 years ago.
"Heath Ledger is going to have the same impact on our culture as James Dean did," said Finegan, one of many fans across the country who were both awed and saddened by Ledger's performance.
"He went out with a hell of a bang," said Finegan's son, Alex, 18, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with Ledger's leering Joker face in cracked white makeup and those red lips frozen in a sickening smile. "He stole the show. It was everything I expected and more."
Media By Numbers, a tracking firm, said the Warner Bros. film, directed by Christopher Nolan, set a box office record for a midnight debut, bringing in $18.5 million Friday from midnight screenings in 3,040 theaters - many of them open 24 hours. That bested the 2005 performance of "Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith," which took in $16.9 million at its debut. "The Dark Knight" figure didn't include any of its 3 a.m. or 6 a.m. showings.
"When we were leaving at 3 a.m. people were still streaming in," said Susan Pepsin, 31, who saw the film at the Arclight theater in Hollywood.
Of course, as the latest installment in the Batman series, "The Dark Knight" likely would have been an event even without the added interest over Ledger, who died at 28 in January of an accidental prescription drug overdose. But Ledger seemed at the top of everyone's mind. During the show, fans applauded many of the actor's particularly demonic moments.
"He was unbelievable," said Michael Loizon, a 23-year-old asset manager in Manhattan. "I had no idea he'd be THAT good." His and his colleague, Michael Holmgren, played hooky from work to see the film. They didn't get in trouble, though - their boss came, too.
"I was the ringleader," confessed John Pileggi, a big comic book and action-film fan. "It was intense, overwhelming," he said of Ledger's performance. "It's sad to say that it was the role of his life, because his life is over. He was so young. I have a son about his age, so I kept thinking about it."
Yet he and many other fans said they hoped the hype over the death wouldn't somehow diminish what they saw as the brilliance of the performance.
"The whole time you know it's Heath Ledger, but at the same time you have to remind yourself that it's him. He is so convincing," said Katie Burns, 23, who went to a midnight screening in Paramus, N.J.