Paul Walker was on the verge of transforming his onscreen persona to that of a gritty anti-hero, like Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood have done before him.
The wild success of his "Fast and Furious" films afforded him the opportunity to take chances with his role selections, film critic Peter Sobczynski points out. "He was like one of those journeymen contract players from the Fifties who may not have gotten the best scripts all the time, but who worked diligently at his craft regardless of the material—and when he did luck into something more demanding, he showed that he was up to the task."
[Photos: Paul Walker's Most Memorable Roles]
Walker's director on the 2005 action-suspense film "Running Scared" definitely thinks the late actor, who died tragically on Saturday in a fiery car crash at the age of 40, was on the cusp of realizing his full potential. "I always told Paul that his most exciting years were going to be his 40s and 50s," wrote Wayne Kramer in a lengthy tribute to Walker. "We talked about how Paul was going to be my Lee Marvin and we were hungry to make those kind of films that could show Paul in that light."
Yes, Walker was easy on the eyes, a blond, blue-eyed hunk whose handsome smile revealed his appeal. While his filmography isn't filled with awards season fodder, he was as dedicated as actors come and demonstrated he was capable in more challenging roles. During "Running Scared," Kramer recalled, Walker spent seven days on a grueling action scene on an ice rink. "At least, five of those days he had his face pushed down into the ice, to the point that his flesh was literally stuck to the surface of the ice — and he never ever complained about it," the director said of Walker's work ethic. "Like a little kid, he was excited to conspire with me on those very scenes that we knew would get a strong reaction from the audience."
Walker offered glimpses into what could have been in films like "Pleasantville," which got nominated for three Oscars in 1999. His performance opposite future Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon as the do-gooder '50s jock was not only humorous, but it was sharp.
Watch Paul Walker in 'Pleasantville':
Critics liked the thriller "Joy Ride" — a leading role for Walker in which he played a college student who unwittingly runs into trouble with a psychokiller. "If you're looking to have your nerves fried and your pulse pounded, this is your ticket to ride," wrote Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers when the film came out in 2001.
Four-time Oscar winner Clint Eastwood himself showed he had faith in Walker when he cast him in his 2006 World War II drama "Flags of our Fathers." (Walker appears in this trailer.)
His work in "Running Scared," while not critically acclaimed, showed Walker's willingness to stretch into new territory. He plays a small time criminal forced to faceoff with corrupt mobsters and lawmen. "He was a natural athlete and could deliver a precision action performance take after take, hitting very difficult camera marks in sync with extremely complicated camera moves," wrote Kramer. Walker tackles similar territory in "Brick Mansions," due out next year, as an undercover cop bent on taking down a crime lord.
Hollywood's most legit players wanted to work with Walker, Kramer recalled. "Kevin Costner was a fan and wanted to do a western with Paul. Vincent D’Onofrio... made a point of telling me how much he dug Paul as an actor. Quentin Tarantino called Paul after seeing 'Running Scared' to tell him how much he loved Paul’s performance," he wrote, adding Sylvester Stallone, writer-director Walter Hill, and writer-director Brian De Palma among those who believed in Walker's talents.
With the presumed mega-success of "Fast & Furious 7" on the horizon, it is endlessly curious to see what could have come of Walker, but his career was cut short much too soon.
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