When the news started to emerge yesterday evening that actor Paul Walker, star of the "Fast and the Furious" franchise, was one of two people to perish in a fiery car accident in Valencia, California, many people initially suspected that it was nothing more than a gruesome Internet hoax. The news proved to be true, alas, and we are once again left to contemplate both a life and career cut short far too soon.
Born in 1973, Walker began working at a young age in commercials and soon graduated to appearances on such TV shows as "The Young & the Restless," "Charles in Charge" and "Who's the Boss." He eventually made his big-screen debut opposite Denise Richards in the immortal "Tammy & the T-Rex" (1994), playing a high schooler whose brain is transplanted into an audio-animatronic dinosaur. This is the kind of start that might have nipped most incipient careers in the bud; Walker persevered, and soon became a familiar face in such popular youth-oriented films as "Meet the Deedles" (1998), "The Skulls" (2000), and the back-to-back 1999 hits "Varsity Blues" and "She's All That."
In 2001, he co-starred in "The Fast & the Furious," a thriller about illegal drag racing that transcended its gearhead underpinnings to become not only one of the surprise hits of that year but the start of an enormously lucrative film franchise; its most recent installment, "Fast & Furious 6," become one of last summer's biggest hits. Although most of the discussion regarding the ongoing popularity of the series has focused on the elaborate action setpieces and the ethnically diverse cast, Walker, who appeared in all but one of the films (and was filming the seventh installment at the time of his death), was another key component to their success, thanks to his Everyman charm and his ability to provide a solid center for the craziness around him. Without his presence to serve as a counter-balance, the franchise might not have achieved such broad and long-lasting commercial acceptance.
Walker appeared in other movies, including "Joyride" (2001), "Timeline" (2003), "Into the Blue" and "Eight Below" (2006). Many of these were uneven at best, ridiculous at worst. But he occasionally found himself working with superior material and rose to meet its demands. One of his first notable film roles was as one of the residents of a sitcom world on the cusp of liberation in the acclaimed comedy-drama "Pleasantville" (1998). He later acquitted himself admirably amongst such heavy hitters as Susan Sarandon, Penelope Cruz and Alan Arkin in the little-seen holiday film "Noel" (2004), and Clint Eastwood cast him in "Flags of our Fathers" (2006), the American-centered half of the director's two-part exploration of the battle of Iwo Jima and its aftermath.
However, if I were to pick one film of his to seek out right away, it would have to be the jaw-dropping 2006 thriller "Running Scared," a film so determinedly demented from start to finish that even the most jaded of moviegoers—at least the ones who caught it during its sadly brief theatrical run—were agog at its excesses. Walker stars as a low-ranking mob thug charged with disposing of a gun that was used to shoot a corrupt cop during a drug deal gone bad. Before he can do so, a neighbor kid steals it to shoot his abusive father, and Walker has to track down both the kid and the gun, a search that leads to some of most lurid developments imaginable. As he did in the "Fast & the Furious" films, Walker provided a clear and relatable anchor amid the madness. He reteamed with the film's writer-director, Wayne Kramer, for this year's "Pawn Shop Chronicles", and while the results weren't much to write home about, his performance as a drug-addled thug trying to pull himself together enough to pull off a robbery was one of its highlights.
On screen, Walker generally projected a strong and steady presence. It may not have inspired hosannas from critics, but more often than not, it added to the proceedings. He had the looks and presence of a teen idol, but in his best performances, he demonstrated that there was more to him than handsomeness. He was like one of those journeymen contract players from the Fifties who may not have gotten the best scripts all the time, but who worked diligently at his craft regardless of the material—and when he did luck into something more demanding, he showed that he was up to the task. He also projected a down-to-earth quality that helped audiences relate to him even in the most cartoonish of circumstances. With the financial security of the "Fast & Furious" movies, there is a chance that he would have used his popularity as a springboard to more challenging projects, in the same way that his one-time director Clint Eastwood did a half-century earlier.
Unlike other young actors who take their early success as an excuse for public misbehavior, Walker was someone whose on-screen persona as a nice guy seemed to carry over into his real life as well. One never heard of him getting into drunken brawls or scrapes with paparazzi. I interviewed him a few years ago under some of the worst circumstances imaginable: the film he was plugging was awful beyond measure, and he was in the throes of a particularly nasty stomach virus. Not only did he insist on going through with the interview, he proved an engaging subject. He dutifully sold what he was there to sell, but was far more animated when talking about his hopes to work on more ambitious material in the vein of "Pleasantville." Such opportunities may not have occurred as often as he might have liked, but in Walker's best work, he demonstrated enough care for his craft to suggest that he was in it for the long haul.
Walker is survived by a daughter, Meadow Rain. Besides the still-in-production "Fast & Furious 7," he has two other films being readied for release. The first, "Hours," a drama in which he plays a father trying to rescue his prematurely-born daughter from a hospital under siege from Hurricane Katrina, is set for release on December 13. The second, "Brick Mansions," an English-language remake of the international action hit "District B13," is due to open sometime next year.