Fade in on January 1999. I’m 14 years old. Future teen classics “Varsity Blues” and “She’s All That” are released within two weeks of each other. They feature relatable stars like James Van Der Beek and Freddie Prinze Jr., respectively, as well as a rising twenty-something actor named Paul Walker, who was coming off a supporting turn in another ’90s gem, “Pleasantville.”
Walker basically played the same character in all three films — a good-looking guy who was popular with both the ladies and his teammates. The sort of All-American athlete that guys aspired to be and girls aspired to date. A rugged Zack Morris, if you will.
Hollywood took notice quickly, especially Universal, which cast him as the lead in “The Skulls” opposite another young heartthrob, Joshua Jackson of “Dawson’s Creek.” After that, Universal gave him the keys to “The Fast and the Furious,” an action-packed soap opera of sorts that was geared to gearheads well before the studio knew the mileage it would get from the future franchise.
Walker stayed behind the wheel for “Joy Ride,” an underrated thriller that John Dahl directed from a script co-written by J.J. Abrams. By the time “2 Fast 2 Furious” rolled around, Walker was as hot as ever — until the ill-timed misfire “Timeline.” It was a minor bump in his career’s upward trajectory, which later included the hit Disney movie “Eight Below” and a role as war hero Hank Hansen in Clint Eastwood‘s “Flags of Our Fathers.”
Walker wasn’t the kind of movie star to grace the covers of tabloid magazines. He was a consummate professional who kept his head down and did solid work in mainstream movies that entertained millions. He was just starting to stretch as an actor, and had a first-look producing deal at Universal, which always believed in his potential as not just an actor but a producer as well.
“It is impossible that the ‘Fast and Furious’ franchise would have become the phenomenon that it has without Paul’s imprint on the series,” Universal’s Donna Langley and former chairman Adam Fogelson said last year in a joint statement.
See photos: 25 Paul Walker Movie Roles
Walker’s Laguna Ridge Pictures had been developing the action thriller “Skyscraper” with Universal and “Fast and Furious” producer Neal Moritz, who the actor credited as “a catalyst and a guide throughout” his career. After the success of “Fast Five” reinvigorated the franchise, Walker decided to pursue producing, and when he wasn’t on set or immersed in charity work, he ran the company with Brandon Birtell and manager Matt Luber.
By most accounts, Walker’s dramatic work in Eric Heisserer’s upcoming directorial debut “Hours” was among his very best, and most personal. He plays a desperate New Orleans father out to save his newborn baby as Hurricane Katrina threatens the electricity in an abandoned hospital. The film is currently scheduled for release on Dec. 13, though that is subject to change in lieu of Walker’s death.
Having earned Hollywood’s trust as a leading man all over again, Walker had been eyed to star in the latest “Hitman” movie “Agent 47,” which would’ve found him replacing Timothy Olyphant as the bald and bar-coded assassin. Alas, Walker died Saturday in a tragic car accident at the age of 40.
Fade out… but not from our hearts and minds.
Here are five non-“Furious” movie roles in which Walker gave standout performances:
As injured quarterback Lance Harbor, Walker served as the ultimate team player/coach, willing to do whatever it took to win. You felt for him as he writhed in pain on the football field before he learns his long-term prognosis, and shared his joy when he coached best bud and fellow QB Moxon (James Van Der Beek) to a win in the big game. His performance allowed us to root for Mox, who basically takes his job and his girlfriend over the course of the movie. No easy feat.
“She’s All That”
Walker plays Dean, a popular high school student who bets Zack (Freddie Prinze Jr.) that he can’t turn an artsy-fartsy outcast into the Prom Queen in six weeks. Walker excelled at playing these types of characters who look great on the outside but are as vulnerable as everyone else on the inside. We almost root for Rachael Leigh Cook to wind up with Dean because Zack has been lying to her all along. Almost. That was Walker’s strength as an actor.
Before he landed the lead role in “The Fast and the Furious,” Walker worked with director Rob Cohen, producer Neal Moritz and Universal on this collegiate thriller that paired him with another “Dawson’s Creek” hunk, Joshua Jackson. Walker plays a fraternity leader born with a silver spoon who gets caught up in a murder case alongside his powerful father. The movie shined a light on secret societies and its modest success spawned two direct-to-video sequels. Not too shabby as far as early star vehicles go. After all, even Jennifer Lawrence had “The House at the End of the Street.”
J.J. Abrams co-wrote this nasty little 2001 thriller, in which Walker and Steve Zahn play brothers who use a CB radio to play a prank on a psychotic trucker who subsequently comes after them and Leelee Sobieski. The John Dahl-directed film was a modest success that never got its due, and helped Walker prove himself as a reliable leading man capable of eliciting sympathy from an audience.
This twisted 2005 thriller from Wayne Kramer remains my favorite Paul Walker movie. The insane plot has him running from gangsters, drug dealers, pimps and a homeless man as he scrambles to retrieve a missing murder weapon. Walker was very believable as a desperate family man caught in a bad situation, and he’s game for everything the out-there script calls for, including taking a few hockey pucks to the face during the film’s bloody-good climax. Sure, Walker’s tough-guy accent is a little wonky, but that was part of the actor’s charm. He allowed us to laugh at that kind of self-serious material, and just enjoy the ride, no matter how strange it became. Decades from now, when the “Fast and Furious” franchise is in the rear-view mirror, this one may be remembered as a cult classic.