in the end, it was tempting to see a fatal irony or, at least, the cruelest coincidence. Paul Walker spent much of his onscreen life driving fast cars furiously. On the afternoon of Nov. 30, in Santa Clarita, Calif., Walker hopped into a bright red 2005 Porsche Carrera GT with his friend and business partner, 38-year-old Roger Rodas. Around 3:30, the Porsche crashed into two trees on Hercules Street and was consumed in flames, killing both men. The 40-year-old actor wasn't at the wheel. In his last drive, Paul Walker rode shotgun.
He had been doing that for most of his career, in a way. The California-born actor rose through the Hollywood ranks as a YM-ready dreamboat at the center of the late-'90s teen-movie wave, starring as the Big Man on Campus in films such as She's All That and The Skulls. (For good measure, he played an older vintage of High School Cool in Pleasantville.) But Walker wasn't the real star of any of those movies: In each, he's the beautiful blue-eyed second fiddle. One of his early lead roles came in Joy Ride, and director John Dahl remembers how Walker introduced himself: '' 'You know, I'm not really an actor. I'm a surfer who occasionally gets work as an actor.' ''
That humility informed Walker's life and work, extending to even his most defining role, as Brian O'Conner in the Fast & Furious franchise. The first film was designed as a star vehicle for Walker by Skulls director Rob Cohen, but O'Conner quickly became the straight man to Vin Diesel in that film, and later to Tyrese Gibson and the whole flashy Fast cast. ''I was surprised he never became more of a leading man,'' says 2 Fast 2 Furious director John Singleton. ''He had the blessing and the crutch of being so good-looking. Making movies for him was work, but he lived a great life outside of making films.'' Walker himself didn't seem interested in stardom. ''I've always been one foot in, one foot out of this game, because I'm not comfortable being on the pedestal,'' he told EW in March. ''I'm more like the grunt. I want to be the guy behind the guy.''
His mother was a model, and his father a sewer contractor: Something in that duality may help explain how an actor who looked perfect approached his job. ''His blue-collar work ethic came from his father and close friends,'' says his friend of 18 years, talent manager Matt Luber. ''He hated playing the Hollywood game, but when he got to the set, no one worked harder.'' Or with less drama. ''He was just one of those guys who required no hand-holding,'' says producer Peter Safran, who worked with Walker on the Hurricane Katrina thriller Hours (out Dec. 13). ''He had no requirements for a fancy trailer no special food, no special accommodations.'' That attitude served a vital role in the Fast ensemble. ''He's the rock in the middle of the chaos,'' says Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Pictures. ''Paul was the model student. He blew his knee out doing a stunt on Fast 6 but still showed up and did what he could.''
When he died, Walker had scenes left to film for Fast & Furious 7, due out next summer. That release date will now likely change. Universal has put filming on hold while it decides how to proceed. ''It's very complicated,'' says Langley. ''We will have half a movie shot, and we are working through it.''
The Fast cast, of course, is devastated. Gibson grieved via social media, posting his final text exchange with Walker. He also visited the crash site and collected a piece of the wreckage. Diesel made a pilgrimage as well, thanking fans over a police car's loudspeaker and paying tribute to ''that angel up in heaven.'' In an email to EW, Jordana Brewster, Walker's onscreen love interest, says, ''I don't know anyone who loved life more than Paul did.''
Walker made no secret about his rather wild early days in Hollywood. Speaking to EW this past spring, he recalled his reaction when he was offered the first Fast film: ''I'm like, 'Hey, it's a million bucks, I get to hang out with my friends and drive cars and be cool!' '' His friend, actor Scott Caan, remembers how that vibe translated to their frat-house living situation while filming Varsity Blues. ''There would be seven football players sleeping on the floor and Paul was dating somebody and I was dating somebody,'' Caan says. ''You'd wake up and kind of look to see who was on the couch that day.''
But there was also a serious side to his youth. The actor became a father in 1998, at age 25, when his then girlfriend, Rebecca McBrain, gave birth to their daughter, Meadow Rain. Meadow lived with her mother in Hawaii while Walker lived the itinerant life of an actor. ''I've been so transient,'' he told EW. ''I didn't even have my own place until I was 32 years old.'' But his Fast costar Dwayne Johnson recalls bonding with him over fatherhood. ''We had talked early on about being young dads and trying to find the balance when our daughters were young,'' Johnson says. ''He adored his daughter. She meant everything to him.'' Meadow, now 15, had been living with her father since 2011. ''She's the best partner I've ever had,'' Walker said. He had her name tattooed on the inside of his right wrist.
As Walker matured, so did his sense of the world, and he increasingly used his fame to support causes that mattered to him. In 2010 he flew to Haiti and Chile, and also founded Reach Out Worldwide, a first-response disaster-relief organization. ''He was truly a charitable, humble man,'' says Dahl. ''He would go out of his way to help people.''
In the past year, Walker had begun to see himself and his work differently. ''There had been a clear change in the last year to do more films that spoke to him and that he would be proud of,'' says Luber. In 2012 Walker signed a first-look deal with Universal. ''He wanted to develop projects for himself to act in,'' says Langley. ''He was looking forward to being in control of his career choices.'' And he was in a period of reflection about his future. ''I think I'm beginning to realize I actually have some control over what I do with my life,'' he told EW just nine months ago. ''I'm almost 40. Why does it take so long?'' Then the ride ended.
At press time, the cause of the wreck that killed Walker was still under investigation, although the L.A. County Sheriff's Department said ''speed was a factor.'' The day after the crash, about 100 people gathered under a cloudless blue sky on Hercules Street. Fans had created a makeshift memorial on the charred ground: dozens of red roses, sunflowers, and daisies, burning candles, and a few handmade signs. One read: ''Race Like Hell in Heaven, Bro.''
(Additional Reporting by Lindsey Bahr, Anthony Breznican, Adam Markovitz, Grady Smith, Nicole Sperling, Karen Valby, and Sara Vilkomerson)