Movie Stars: Walker, Paul–American Beauty

Paul Walker, who died on Saturday at 40 in a car crash in Valencia, California was admired by girls (and some boys) raised on “Saved by the Bell” and the WB Network.

But do you remember Paul Walker in the “Pleasantville,” the lovely film of 1998, directed by Gary Ross?  The tale concerns two siblings (Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire) transported inside a 1950s sitcom. The world they encounter is a 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 sexy dimples, Walker, then only 24, played 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.

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.  In 2000, 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 Walker’s career in the teen genre.

Although many of the best friend parts were small and Walker’s acting a bit stiff, he became popular with girls and young women–the all-American heartthrob 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.”

Running Naked

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 shirtless 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 restarted 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.

Reportedly, director Rob Cohen ran into Walker on a Maui beach in 2000 and offered 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 did not appear in 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.   The sixth movie, released last May 2013, grossed $789 million worldwide.

The eerie circumstance surrounding Walker’s death in a crumpled Porsche–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, unpretentious Paul Walker that audiences loved and will miss the most.