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"I don't have friends, I have family."
So Vin Diesel's Dom Toretto declares in Furious 7, one of many nods to the motor-oil-is-thicker-than-blood theme of the entire $6 billion Fast and Furious franchise, which at its core—aside from the speedy cars and the increasingly wild things you can do with them—is all about friendship, the kind that defines the concept of ride or die in more ways than one.
But while some actors just report for work and go home at the end of the day, over the course of a decade the core cast also started to consider themselves a family. And when Paul Walker died in a car crash Nov. 30, 2013, at the age of 40, Diesel felt as though he'd lost a brother.
The 54-year-old actor, who skipped the first sequel after the sleeper success of 2000's The Fast and the Furious, ultimately co-starred with Walker in five Fast and Furious films, including Furious 7, which was still in production when Walker died. Diesel hopped on a plane to California right away when he heard the news, concerned especially about his goddaughter, Meadow Walker, Paul's only child.
"Pablo, I wish you could see the world right now… and the profound impact, your full life has had on it, on Us… on me," Diesel wrote on Facebook a few days later, invoking his affection nickname for Walker, the Spanish-language equivalent of Paul. "I will always love you Brian, as the brother you were… on and off screen."
"I thought they needed my strength, but realized when I got there and broke down before his family, that it was I who needed theirs," he also recalled the heartbreaking moment he reunited with Walker's mom, Cheryl, and others. "His mother hugged me and said I am so sorry... I said sorry? You're the mother who lost a son?... She said yes, but you lost your other half."
That was a week after the accident, and Diesel returned to social media often to share thoughts and memories.
"There was always moments of child-like laughter...We had accomplished so much by 2013...P.s. The complexities of Brotherhood, and the painful void... of it's absence," the actor wrote on Facebook Jan. 2, 2014, one of numerous tributes he's shared over the years honoring his friend.
But while the grief flowed forth as one might expect following such a tragic loss, one felt throughout Hollywood as Walker was remembered as one of the most genuine good guys you could hope to meet, their nearly 15-year bromance was the real deal, one rooted in the franchise's scrappy beginnings.
"Do you remember, back in 1999, when you and I were doing research and we went to an illegal street car rally?" Diesel asked his co-star during a joint Q&A session for Movie Fone ahead of the May 2013 release of Fast & Furious 6. "And about a half an hour later, you and I are running from helicopters and wondering, Was this too much research?"
Of course Walker remembered. "It was awesome," he said.
Diesel recalled, "When we first did this, we were thinking we had an opportunity to do a Rebel Without a Cause. We thought that we were doing a classic car movie and we would do one and that would be it." Instead, he continued, there they were, wondering if the plan would be to then make "seven, eight, nine? Or seven, eight, nine, 10."
Needless to say, they called each other brother as they shook hands and signed off.
Barely six months later, Walker was gone and the cast and crew of Furious 7 was left to somehow regroup.
On The Jonathan Ross Show in October 2015, Diesel gave a shout-out to Universal, calling the studio "wonderful and exceptional" for rolling with the production's desire to change the ending to give Walker a proper send-off: Cop turned FBI agent turned Dom's partner in crime (and brother-in-law) Brian O'Conner heading off into the sunset with Jordana Brewster's Mia and their son, Jack.
Walker's similarly handsome brothers Cody and Caleb stood in as body doubles for Brian's remaining scenes, and their presence on set was a comfort for Diesel.
"What it did more than anything was said the family validated what we were doing," Diesel told Extra in 2015, "and just seeing them there, wanting to protect the legacy of someone they care so much about was an empowering feeling, and they were just so generous and unrelenting in wanting to help and do anything to help us finish this legacy and complete this task that we had. That was the most important thing ever for us."
In announcing the film's release date, Diesel shared a pic of Dom and Brian, writing, "The last scene we filmed together…There was a unique sense of completion, of pride we shared… in the film we were now completing… the magic captured… and, in just how far we've come...Fast and Furious 7 will be released…April 10th 2015!"
"P.s. He'd want you to know first."
By the time it was released (later bumped up to April 3), Diesel had named his third child, born that March, Pauline.
"Sometimes I'll post a picture on Facebook or talk about Pablo and people will say, 'You know, just move on,'" Diesel told Jonathan Ross later that year, "but the relationships in that franchise are so strong and the brotherhood so real, that it transcends the experience of making the movie. And you spend 15 years going from being a nobody to somebody with a brother...and then one day he's gone, and it's a very heavy experience."
Doing press for Furious 7 did provide some catharsis as well, Diesel having plenty of happy memories to talk about, such as their sun-drenched time on the set of 2009's Fast & Furious, the fourth movie in the franchise but his and Walker's first together since the original.
"We were hanging out and talking about how we finished shooting in Mexico," he told Extra. "We're drinking beers and next thing you know, I get clotheslined into the pool, I have to say it brought me back to being a kid and brought me back to my own siblings and the fun we used to have together and we were just cracking up in the pool."
Explaining his decision to return to the franchise for Fast & Furious, Walker—an admitted "gear head" who loved cars but was also interested in branching out into juicier acting roles—told Australia's Girl.com.au in 2009 that he loved the heart of the first film (2 Fast 2 Furious was super fun, he said, but it didn't have that familial soul) and he basically saw it as a good opportunity to go and hang out with his friends.
"Our chemistry is that we don't have any chemistry," he said with a laugh about himself and Diesel. "That's the funny thing. He's East Coast, I'm West Coast. You know? We respect each other as human beings. And that's about all it takes, you know? We get around, we laugh. But we have such two totally different approaches to this whole game."
In that, he knew Diesel was very comfortable living that movie star life, while Walker had many other interests driving him.
Asked about the inevitable next film and whether he'd want to be in it, Walker said he would truly want for it to be the best one yet, not just a vague "bigger and better" situation.
"I know Vin's in there already [talking plot]," he said with a reported big laugh. "You know, so...I'd like to get my day in court. He's got a big voice, and he stays on it. He holds pretty tight reins. I'm more of, like, 'Ah, things are going to come around the way they're supposed to. Let's be organic. Let's sit down, let's talk and see how it flows.' Vin's going to be in there going...," he said with a laugh, miming moving things around. "So I think that's where we complement each other. I think that might be a big part of the reason why people think we have chemistry. Whatever it seems to be. It's just our approaches are just so different."
Talking to Fandom Entertainment in 2011 before the release of Fast Five, Walker said, "Brian and Dom, it's not much unlike Vin and I. We get along and I think there's a mutual kind of respect and fascination with one another."
In service of making their best movie yet, he thought it was a given to reunite all of the characters who'd popped up along the way for that film's ensemble, and "we're having more fun now than we ever have."
They all returned for Fast & Furious 6 and that was supposed to be how they rolled for the foreseeable future, minus characters lost to plot twists. But while they were tragically forced to say goodbye to Brian in Furious 7, the movie purposefully allowed fans to picture him still living on a beach in paradise somewhere.
And the series decidedly did not run out of gas.
Rather, they plowed forward with The Fate of the Furious, which came out in 2017 (Tyrese Gibson's Roman ponders calling Brian to help them out of a jam at one point, but the crew sticks to their vow to keep him and his young family out of danger) and now, after a 14-month delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, it's full speed ahead for F9's June 25 release.
John Cena joins the Fast fam as Dom's long-lost brother Jakob Toretto—a casting coup Diesel says was actually inspired by Walker.
"I remember once we started getting closer to production, [director Justin Lin] and I would talk about how harrowing it would be to actually cast a new Toretto, the brother of Toretto," Diesel explained at a media event in April, per ComicBook.com. "There's so many different directions you could go. And I remember John Cena coming into this Dom shrine that I had, where I would kind of go to meditate and train and start getting into that Dom state of mind." (They met—yes, at the "Dom shrine," where Diesel trains—in April 2019.)
"And I remember John coming in and—call this crazy—but I remember feeling as though Pablo, Paul Walker, had sent him in. I remember talking to Justin that night and saying, 'My gut and my heart feels like this was meant to be.'"
Consider Cena floored.
"The origin of Vin's comments, I think Vin is so much better to answer that than me," Cena, 44, added. "Hearing something like that, man. Certainly, you have expectations to want to do your best. The importance and the gravity of a statement like that is not lost on me."
Sharing thoughts with Walker about additions to the franchise was routine for Diesel, who recalled at the 2015 Hollywood Film Awards about how both of them were excited when Kurt Russell came aboard for Furious 7. "I remember talking to Paul about it," he told Russell, his voice getting huskier with emotion. "There was as sense of validation that such a great actor wanted to come into our ensemble and be a part of our movie, so thank you for that."
"We've come a long way," Diesel continued at podium, where their movie was being honored with the Hollywood Blockbuster Award. "Fifteen years ago, Paul, Jordana and Michelle [Rodriguez] and I became a family—and that's why you heard it 45 f--king times a movie." Both actresses, standing behind him, burst out laughing. But, he added, "we became a family and we've been blessed enough to..." Diesel paused.
"You know, it's hard to talk about Furious 7. It's hard to celebrate Furious 7," he said. Taking a deep breath, he explained that he had planned not to talk about Walker that night. Yet "when you've had a brother like that, it's impossible not to. When we made a film that made the whole world cry with us, it's impossible to receive an award and I feel emotional."
After some thank-yous, Diesel concluded, "I love you all, and thank you for recognizing that angel. It's a little lonelier without him, but I know he's looking down on us—and I know he's happy, and I know he's smiling, 'cause all of you have acknowledged him. This is for Pablo."
When Fast 7 was subsequently named Favorite Movie and Favorite Action Movie at the People's Choice Awards the following January, Diesel said that he had once again talked himself out of not talking about Walker.
"I was cool while I was sitting in my seat," he explained, "and then they handed me two awards...so I think of Dom and Brian, and I start to think of Paul. They said to make this short and sweet, so I will try to make this short and sweet. It was a labor of love. My only message to you is, you'd be amazed what you can do with love. You'd be amazed how powerful a force that is. When we didn't want to come back to filming when the tragedy was too heavy, it was the love of everyone combined that saw us through to the end, and now I'm standing here with all of you telling me this was your favorite film of the year."
The actor, who's since been toggling between franchises, getting behind the wheel as Dom and declaring himself Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy, told Entertainment Tonight this month that it remained as important as ever for the Fast family to keep Walker in their hearts.
"That does absolutely have to happen," he explained. "I can't envision making a Fast film continuing this mythology without my brother Pablo's soul being the guiding spirit."
And there's still a place for him at the table. "The fact that Brian O'Conner is still alive in this universe needs to be acknowledged," Justin Lin, who previously directed Walker in 2 Fast 2 Furious, told Entertainment Weekly in April. "We're treating F9 as the first film of the last chapter, and at some point it is something I think about and how we can really show his presence but in a respectful way. So it's always ongoing. I feel like in 9 we've done it in a way that I feel good about, but, as we go into trying to wrap up the saga, it's something that I will continue to always be thinking through."
Talking to TMZ earlier this month about how the movies had continued to honor his brother's legacy, Cody Walker—who was in middle school when The Fast and the Furious came out—said that he felt "Vin and the whole family have done a really good job in tastefully letting the character ride off into the sunset." Referring to the franchise's increasingly mind-blowing stunts, he added with a smile, "I think Paul would really get a kick out of where its' gone. It's gotten so crazy, you know, it's a wild, wild ride at this point!"
But while he wouldn't speculate any more about that, he added, "I just know that Vin always takes a very serious approach to keeping Paul's legacy in mind and has always done a really nice job of paying tribute to his character. They worked together and were brothers for years."
And that sentiment hasn't changed a bit.
"Weeks away from the F9 release... in preproduction for the finale that starts only months from now... @meadowwalker sends me this image and tells me how happy the photo makes her feel," Diesel wrote on Instagram June 6, showing off a 2000-era throwback pic of him and Walker sent to him by his late buddy's now 22-year-old daughter.
"Naturally, one gets filled with emotion, purpose and ultimately gratitude. Eternal brotherhood is a blessing beyond words. Hope to make you proud... All love, Always."
Meadow, who was 15 when her dad died, has remained close with Diesel's whole family, including his daughters, Hania, 13, and Pauline, 6, and son Vincent, 11 (who made his movie debut in F9, playing young Dom).
Asked about a photo Meadow had shared of them together May 29, captioned "family <3," Diesel told ET that he had actually just been on the phone with Meadow before sitting down for the interview.
"That's so funny that you say that," he said. "I literally just got off the phone with her. That means everything, and that's what family does and it goes beyond the success of the franchise. That's about the success of your soul."
Coming through for her once again, Diesel walked Meadow down the aisle earlier this month when she wed Louis Thornton-Allen in a beachfront ceremony. Her godfather knew more than anyone how proud her dad would have been.
(E! and Universal Pictures are both members of the NBCUniversal family.)
(Originally published June 17, 2021, at 5 a.m. PT)