Actor Paul Walker’s death in a fiery car crash under a clear-blue California sky on Saturday continues to feel so incredibly sad, and so surreal.
How can it not?
The actor, 40, spent much of his life on screen behind the wheel of fast cars, walking away from the worst possible pileups in “The Fast and the Furious” franchise. As one of the central players in the hugely popular series, and a part of the cast from its 2001 beginnings, it created a world where there was no curve its drivers couldn’t navigate, no wreck they couldn’t survive. Cars stood for high-octane escape, freedom at 200 mph.
No one was prepared for a day like Saturday. That Walker’s final moments would carry such heartbreaking irony; that the sort of images that defined his life in film would also frame his death.
Though the “Fast and Furious” anchor is star Vin Diesel playing Dominic Toretto, a local L.A. tough with a heart of gold, a few of the core cast members became minor constellations in their own right. Walker, as the undercover cop who became Dom’s best friend and his most reliable partner in crime, was one.
Part of the films’ appeal was its blue-collar ethos and its love of all things American, except for a law here or there. The pull was powerful enough that even Walker’s cop Brian O’Conner couldn’t resist. Dom's crew of gear-heads, grease monkeys, guys willing to get their hands dirty when duty called, soon won him over.
Walker's character was our entry point into this very real underground scene. The actor helped us see the merit in these renegades, to be seduced by the adrenaline rush of the race. There was also Brian's sweet relationship with Dom’s sister Mia, played by Jordana Brewster. Together the actors embodied a classic working-class couple, their courtship remarkably innocent in an outlaw world.
That was Walker’s strength in front of the camera. The actor was ever the rock-solid guy.
He certainly looked the part with that strong jaw, slight scruff, clear blue eyes, golden smile. It is no surprise the actor landed on People magazine’s most beautiful list. Walker could ooze sex appeal. But far more often what you saw on screen was an inherent decency.
Walker was born in Glendale, and he never moved far from home. A California boy, he liked to surf and drive fast cars. The car passion played out on screen, in sanctioned racing circuits, or at charity events like the one he was attending in the Santa Clarita Valley on Saturday.
That he would become an actor was almost a given. He began spending time in front of the camera as a toddler, diaper-clad in a Pampers ad his first performance. At 13, he made his big-screen debut in 1986’s “Monster in the Closet.” The B-movie would, in a sense, set the course for his career.
The TV and film roles that followed were mostly modest ones, drawing more fans than critical attention. In some of the better movies, Walker took secondary parts, overshadowed by bigger stars of his generation, like Tobey Maguire in 1998’s “Pleasantville,” James Van Der Beek in ‘99’s “Varsity Blues.”
Until “The Fast and the Furious” -- a box-office juggernaut with international appeal -- changed his life forever. He was a specialist in the mainstream, in a league with countless actors who show up year after year, give us their best and don't ask for much in return. Including awards on the shelf. Just to act is almost reward enough.
The franchise has never claimed to be high art, but it is always solidly entertaining. Its brash bravado is tempered by the fact that these bad boys are really good guys. No. 6 in the series, which came out this May, outdid all the rest.
In more recent times, the actor was taking on other types of roles. In one of his last projects, “Hours,” which is due in theaters in a couple of weeks, he plays a father desperate to keep his baby daughter safe in the face of Hurricane Katrina.
There is no official word yet on the fate of “Fast & Furious 7,” which is still in production. I would be surprised if they didn’t find a way turn the film, at least in part, into a final tribute: to Walker and the memory of a good man, a good father, a good friend and a good actor -- in that order -- who sadly died too young.