The first time audiences really set their eyes on Paul Walker was in the 1998 dramedy “Pleasantville,” about two siblings (Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire) transported inside a 1950s sitcom. The world they encounter is a cookie-cutter, black-and-white suburb straight out of “The Donna Reed Show,” and Walker played the handsome high school love interest for Witherspoon. With his hair slicked back and Ken doll dimples, Walker, 24 at the time, brought to mind a young Tab Hunter. His character was meant to be a squeaky-clean boy next door, but he didn’t stay that way. On a drive-in movie theater date, Witherspoon lunges at him and he experiences a sexual awakening.
Walker, who died on Saturday at 40 in a car crash in Valencia, Calif., was the dreamboat of choice for a generation of girls (and some boys) raised on “Saved by the Bell” and the WB Network. It’s no coincidence that he starred in two back-to-back films with “Dawson’s Creek” alumni. In 1999’s “Varsity Blues,” he’s the cocky quarterback in the football drama headlined by James Van Der Beek. A year later, he played a member of a Yale-like secret society in “The Skulls” opposite Joshua Jackson.
His other breakout role was as the sidekick to Freddie Prinze Jr. in 1999’s “She’s All That,” a modern remake of “Pygmalion” which grossed $103 million worldwide and launched his career in the teen genre. Although many of the best friend parts were just as cookie-cutter as that “Pleasantville” town — and Walker’s line readings sometimes bordered on soap opera camp — that wasn’t the point. Paul Walker was comfort food to post-“Breakfast Club” audiences: the all-American prom king who never took himself too seriously.
Walker grew up in the Valley as a child actor with small roles in TV series “Highway to Heaven,” “Charles and Charge” and “Who’s the Boss?” Before “Pleasantville,” he co-starred in a Disney movie, “Meet the Deedles,” which critics dismissed as a rip-off of “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” (As Phil Deedle, he was stuck with dialogue like “What do you say, bro?” and loved to surf, a true-to-life hobby.) Walker’s chiseled torso often featured enough of a role in his films to deserve its own shout-out in the closing credits. The marketing campaign for the 2005 surfing film “Into the Blue” featured Walker sans shirt on billboards and buses. When he disrobed for a nude scene in the 2001 thriller “Joy Ride,” ABC News ran a lengthy interview about it.
Walker could have easily disappeared in the 00s, but he managed to restart a second act in his career with “The Fast and the Furious.” The first car heist thriller, released in 2001, cast Walker as a typical Paul Walker hero — the affable undercover cop Brian O’Conner, assigned to chasing down (and later befriending) Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto. Director Rob Cohen shared with Variety last night the memory of running into Walker on a Maui beach in 2000 and offering him the role. “He committed on the spot,” Cohen said. “We shot the film that summer and he and Diesel were just the perfect duo for me. His American beauty, his athleticism, the directness of his approach to the character, his effusive, down-to-earth personality brought joy to me and everyone around him.”
Walker sat out the third chapter, but he later returned to the series as it continued to grow into a pop culture phenomenon. Under Justin Lin’s direction, the car chases became operatic sequences to enthrall the series’ rabid fans, who hooted at every fiery explosion at midnight screenings. The sixth movie, released last May, grossed $789 million worldwide. The eerie circumstance surrounding Walker’s death in a crumpled Porsche (he was in the passenger’s seat) will make it hard to watch the seventh installment, which comes out from Universal next summer. Walker spent the later half of his career trying to stretch in films like Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of our Fathers,” the gritty crime thriller “Running Scared” and a handful of indies. But it’s the low-key, goofy Paul Walker that audiences loved and will miss the most.