Obituary: Paul Walker, actor

Paul Walker: Fast and Furious star who turned boyhood passion for motor racing into a successful film career. Picture: AP
Paul Walker: Fast and Furious star who turned boyhood passion for motor racing into a successful film career. Picture: AP
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Born: 12 September, 1973, in Glendale, California. Died: 30 November, 2013, in Santa Clarita, California, aged 40

Paul Walker turned a boyhood passion for motor racing into pretty much a full-time career when he accepted one of the starring roles in The Fast and The Furious, which launched one of the most successful film series of recent times. He never quite became a household name with the older, mainstream, cinema-going public, but he was lionised by the sort of young guys who love fast cars and movie car chases.

The Fast and the Furious, in which he played an undercover cop, who is seduced by the illegal street racing scene, was voted the best film ever made in a poll conducted by the American market gurus Teen Research Unlimited.

The original film came out in 2001, the sixth instalment opened in May this year, and the series has grossed more than $2 billion at cinemas worldwide, with a lot more revenue generated in video markets. Walker had been working on a seventh instalment, due for release next summer.

He did some of the driving in the films himself, though he was restricted by the production company’s insurers as to just how much he could do. But his earnings from the films allowed him to indulge his passion for fast cars away from the set.

He competed in car races in the United States and used a chunk of his pay from the first film to import a Nissan Skyline R34 sports car, the model he drives in the first sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious. I met him at the time and he took great delight in telling me that it could reach 200mph. “I’ve loved racing ever since I was a kid,” he said. “I always dreamt about being an auto-racer one day.”

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department suggested speed was a factor in the car crash in which he died on Saturday, shortly after leaving an event organised by Reach Out Worldwide, a charity Walker set up to send expert help to disaster zones. It was reported in the US that the car was being driven by a friend, who also died in the accident.

Paul William Walker IV was the oldest of five children, born in 1973 into a working-class Mormon family in Glendale, California. His father was a sewerage contractor and his mother was a model, but she was certainly not on supermodel wages. Through his mother, Walker became involved in modelling as an infant and his assignments became a valuable source of income for the family.

One of his first jobs was an advert for Pampers nappies. He also got into acting and began appearing in television shows and occasionally films from his early teens onwards. He studied marine biology at college and considered a career in the field, but movies provided a lucrative alternative.

He was tall, handsome and athletic, with blond hair and blue eyes. As well as driving, he was also a keen surfer, and a starring role in Disney’s surf movie Meet the Deedles in 1998 raised his profile and led to roles in the high school football comedy-drama Varsity Blues, the romantic comedy She’s All That and the thriller The Skulls.

But The Fast and the Furious took his career to a whole different level. Inspired by a magazine article about illegal street races, it provided Walker with a starring role in a major worldwide hit.

Vin Diesel played one of the top street racers, Dominic Toretto, and Walker played Brian O’Conner, a policeman who goes undercover to investigate Diesel’s crew, who are suspected of also being involved in other criminal activities.

O’Conner falls for both the lifestyle and the Diesel character’s sister. O’Conner and Toretto form an uneasy alliance against the real nasties. And, of course, they have to race each other, with a speeding train thrown into the mix too.

Walker’s character ends up on the run himself at the end of the first film. At the beginning of 2 Fast 2 Furious he is a street racer in Miami, but he cuts a deal with the authorities to go under cover again. Walker was not in the third instalment, though Diesel returned.

Detractors would suggest that the producers were effectively just serving up much the same every time and that the cars were the real stars. But the grosses show that the films worked best when Walker and Diesel shared driving duties.

They were reunited in 2009 in the fourth film, which was entitled Fast and Furious, just in case fans feared the producers would stray too far from the original. It became the biggest hit in the series and the producers stuck with the formula on Fast 5 and Fast and Furious 6, with bigger grosses each time.

The success of the Fast and Furious films gave Walker the chance of other major roles – he was working in Antarctica on the Disney adventure Eight Below, he was the real-life marine Hank Hansen in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and he was a bank robber in Takers. But he never really found anything to rival the Fast and Furious films.

Walker was genuinely well-liked in the industry, with other executives, with other actors and with crews – which was certainly not always the case with Hollywood stars; and he was very involved with charity work.

It was reported a few years ago that he was engaged to a teenage student little more than half his age.

He is survived by a daughter from a previous relationship.