Paul Walker, who has died aged 40 in a car accident, combined unthreatening star charisma with preppy good looks and a canny commercial sensibility.
Though he had shown promise in his early film roles, he could easily have become just another piece of well-dressed eye candy had it not been for his involvement in the colossally successful Fast and Furious franchise, which has grossed $2.38bn worldwide to date.
In 2001, the first film in the series, The Fast and the Furious, put a four-wheeled spin on the surfing-bank-robbers thriller Point Break. Walker took the Keanu Reeves role of the upstart undercover cop who infiltrates a criminal gang – in this case, a group of daredevil street-racers moonlighting as truck hijackers – before discovering a kinship with the renegades he is supposed to be apprehending.
The contrast between Walker, slim, slick and blue-eyed, and his co-star, Vin Diesel, who resembled a small mountain and spoke with a throatful of rocks, was pleasurable, even amusing. And though the cast clearly knew that the stars were the cars, the presence of Diesel and Walker proved so integral to the formula that it became imperative to reunite them, after Diesel was absent from the second film 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), and Walker from the third, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) – with those pictures proving to be the least commercially successful of the series. Both actors star in the upcoming seventh instalment, Fast & Furious 7, which will arrive in cinemas next summer.
Walker was under no illusions about the sorts of films he was making. "We don't want to take ourselves too seriously," he said during shooting on Fast & Furious 6 (2013), which went on to gross $788m worldwide. "It's a fine line there. We've got to remember what it is we're making: a Fast and the Furious. The second we become pretentious, we've killed it. People really connect with the whole family dynamic, the loyalty and the bonds. The simple themes. It's not the most complex thing in the world. People identify with it because it's not trying to be anything it's not."
He did, though, express some fondness for a time before the series had entered such blockbuster territory, admitting that "this thing's just got out of control. The first one was made for $38m and I don't know how much we're spending now. I don't want to know. There was something really cool about being the underdog. Now we are expected to hit, whereas before no one expected a damn thing."
Walker was the oldest of five children born in Los Angeles to Cheryl, a fashion model, and Paul, a sewer contractor, and was raised as a Mormon. He was educated at Village Christian school. He appeared as a child model from the age of two, followed by parts in advertisements and on US television, and later won supporting roles in high-profile films including the comic fantasy Pleasantville (1998), the teen romcom She's All That (1999) and the sports drama Varsity Blues (1999).
Following his confident performance as one of a pair of new initiates to a sinister secret society in The Skulls (2000), he was cast as Brian O'Conner in The Fast and the Furious. Although his career came to be dominated by that series, he did notable work in John Dahl's expert thriller Joyride, aka Roadkill (2001) and was part of the impressive ensemble cast in Flags of Our Fathers (2006), one of a brace of interlocking films made by Clint Eastwood about the battle for Iwo Jima.
Other roles capitalised on the increasing bad-boy inflections in his on-screen persona – he was a hood mixed up in a drug deal gone awry in Running Scared (2006) and a reformed criminal on the path to redemption in The Lazarus Project (2008). As well as the seventh Fast & Furious film, Walker had also recently completed the Hurricane Katrina drama Hours, which premiered earlier this year at the South By Southwest festival. Still awaiting release is the crime drama Brick Mansions, a US remake of the French thriller District 13, in which Walker stars alongside the hiphop star RZA and for which he was required to train extensively in parkour.
He is survived by Meadow Rain, his daughter by his former partner Rebecca McBrain.
• Paul William Walker, actor, born 12 September 1973; died 30 November 2013
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Andre Luis