Brian Bowen Smith
Benjamin Svetkey
April 10, 2009 AT 04:00 AM EDT

On the eve of the biggest opening weekend of his life — shortly before Fast & Furious smashed box office records by grossing an astonishing $71 million — Vin Diesel got fired. By his publicists, no less. At least that was the story in the papers: The gravelly-voiced, shaven-headed actor, 41, had arrived four hours late for the March 14 Fast & Furious press junket in Los Angeles.

The next day, his exasperated PR firm removed him from its client list. It wasn’t the first time Diesel had been dismissed in Hollywood — but it may just be the last.

Before last week, of course, neither Diesel nor the Fast & Furious series were revving up fans the way they once did. The franchise was starting to run on empty (2006’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift barely grossed $60 million). Diesel had some hits, such as 2005’s The Pacifier, but also some spectacular flops (his last film, 2008’s Babylon A.D., grossed a measly $23 million). His Fast & Furious costar Paul Walker, meanwhile, wasn’t faring much better. Aside from a smallish role in a Clint Eastwood war movie (Flags of Our Fathers) and the arctic family adventure Eight Below, his films weren’t making huge blips on the cultural radar. But now, literally overnight, the racing-movie genre’s oddest couple — the hulk and the hunk — are back in the fast lane.

Tom Hanks once told me that it doesn’t matter where you are in your career, you’ll always have highs and lows,” Diesel says. ”This just happens to be a high. I’m just so appreciative and grateful that all these people that I talk to, verbally and nonverbally, through my films all showed up at the theater. They came out in droves — double the amount the studio thought we were going to appeal to. That is such a cool feeling. I’m just high on life at the moment.”

NEXT PAGE: ”It’s really not that mystifying. Give the people what they want and they reward you with their money.”

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