Paul Walker’s sudden death leaves Hollywood scrambling

The death of actor Paul Walker in an automobile accident Saturday has left fans and the film community reeling — and Hollywood facing a series of tricky business decisions.

As filmmakers and fellow performers remembered Walker as a deeply likable everyman with a taste for adventure, principals on the late actor’s signature “Fast & Furious” franchise were left to deal with Walker’s tragic passing on the screen.

Walker’s death, in a single-car crash in Valencia, came as the Glendale native was preparing to resume production on “Fast & Furious 7,” with a return to the Atlanta set scheduled for Monday to shoot more scenes as rogue ex-cop Brian O’Conner.


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Earlier in the fall, Walker had shot an unspecified number of scenes for the car-themed action picture, which this go-round centers on a vengeful rivalry between racing crews.

With Walker’s death, director James Wan, lead producer Neal Moritz and executives at Universal Pictures have a decision to make on the film, set for release July 11.

It’s believed that there is not nearly enough material in the can to close O’Conner’s character arc in the picture, which would mean rewriting the script to allow for a new resolution — a complicated and timely process — or cutting Walker out of the film entirely. Walker’s planned scenes this week will almost certainly mean a schedule shuffle and could also lead to a halt in production.

Universal would not comment beyond a brief condolence message sent to reporters by a spokeswoman late Saturday. Moritz did not reply to a request for comment on plans for “Fast 7" in the wake of Walker’s death.

While the sudden passing of a director can throw an entire project into jeopardy (Tony Scott’s suicide in summer 2012 effectively derailed a planned “Top Gun” reboot) actor deaths have often meant a posthumous release as a tribute of sorts--providing their work has been completed. James Gandolfini, Heath Ledger and James Dean all had well-received films released after their death. Walker’s role in “Fast 7,” though, is a particular P.R. tightrope walk for Universal, given both the circumstances of his death and the fact that he was not finished shooting the film.

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Walker’s passing also raises questions about the long-term viability of the series. “Fast & Furious” movies have grossed $2.3 billion worldwide, with the most recent, 2013’s “Fast Six,” the highest-grossing ($789 million).

While the series — which already has an eighth film in development — has rotated characters in and out over its 12-year history, the nucleus has been the buddy dynamic of Walker’s O’Conner and Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto, who have been in every movie but “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,” the series’ least successful installment. Still, many in Hollywood expect it to continue, with the brand considered a larger draw than any single performer.

Walker, 40, died as a Santa Clarita charity event and car show was winding down, when he and friend Roger Rodas went for a ride in a red Porsche, a witness said.

Jim Torp heard a loud boom and said he knew in his heart that his friends had been in an accident. The smoke from the crash was visible from Always Evolving, the automotive shop where car enthusiasts and supporters were gathered. The event was held in support of Walker’s first-aid organization, Reach Out Worldwide, with proceeds earmarked for families affected by the typhoon in the Philippines and a tornado in Indiana, Torp said.

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Officials at the scene held back a childhood friend of Walker’s from trying to take the actor’s body from the burning car, and firefighters had to pull Rodas’ young son away from the wreckage, Torp said.

“They just didn’t want to believe this happened,” Torp told fans and media at the crash site Sunday. “It was ‘Fast and the Furious,’ that’s what it is. Both race car enthusiasts, both loved speed, both knew how to handle cars, and this had to happen.”

Sheriff’s officials said speed may have been a factor in the crash, which occurred on a quiet street with a 45-mph limit. The car knocked over a tree and a concrete lamp post. The cause of the crash remains under investigation, sheriff’s Deputy Kim Manatt told The Times.

The smell of the burned Porsche lingered in the morning air as fans set up a makeshift memorial at the crash site on Hercules Street, near Kelly Johnson Parkway. “Fast and Furious” memorabilia were placed alongside candles and flowers. One sign read, “Paul Walker Race in Heaven.”

Walker has several other pictures already shot, and Saturday’s news had those films’ distributors contemplating their options.

Walker’s survival drama “Hours” had been set by the boutique company Pantelion Films for a limited theatrical and VOD release on Dec. 13.

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On Sunday morning, Pantelion Chief Executive Paul Presburger and “Hours” producer Peter Safran convened to discuss whether to push that date.

“We thought long and hard about pulling the release,” Presburger said. “We were trying to determine what was the best way to honor him and this movie that he was very proud of. But this is the plan we pitched in the room to Paul — the one he was excited about — and we’re going to move forward with it.” Walker had completed a press junket to promote the film in November and was set to do an interview with the Times this month.

In the film, Walker plays a man whose wife goes into labor during Hurricane Katrina and dies during childbirth. Though five weeks premature, his daughter survives. But the hospital is soon forced to evacuate because of the storm, and the new father must stay behind to keep his baby alive.

The movie represents perhaps Walker’s biggest role — he is on screen for nearly the whole film, often by himself — and certainly one of his most emotional. Shot in New Orleans in just 18 days, “Hours” was also executive-produced by Walker.

In September, Walker had also finished shooting “Brick Mansions,” a crime drama penned by Luc Besson. Relativity Media has weighed a release in the first quarter of 2014, with nothing finalized yet, a spokesman said. Walker had learned how to perform parkour stunts for the movie, in which he plays an undercover cop trying to take down a Detroit crime ring.

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For many, however, it was Walker’s character, more than his films, that came to mind this weekend.

Todd Lieberman, who produced two films that starred Walker, the dog-sledding family-film “Eight Below” and the thriller “The Lazarus Project,” recalled the actor’s guy-next-door qualities.

“He was a man who lived his life the way he wanted to live it and not because of how Hollywood dictated it should be lived,” Lieberman said, noting that Walker would often travel and pursue other hobbies, eschewing some of the Hollywood game in the process.

Lieberman recalled Walker’s innate enthusiasm; one of the abiding memories he had of the actor was on the frigid British Columbia set of “Eight Below,” where it was in fact 30 below.

“Everyone else was huddled around the one heater between takes, and then I’d look out and see Paul lying in the snow, making snow angels, just happily playing with the dogs.”

Lieberman added that Walker “was just a normal, grounded guy who happened to be a talented actor.”

Ryan Phillippe tweeted that Walker was “Conscientious & not caught up in Hollywood. He knew there was more to life & lived like it.”

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Indeed, Walker largely stayed out of the limelight, most recently living in Santa Barbara raising his teenage daughter. Though he was already doing modeling gigs even as a baby and as an adolescent had roles on 1980s TV shows such as “Highway to Heaven” and “Who’s the Boss?,” Walker was initially hesitant about acting, and at one point studied marine biology with an eye toward becoming a naturalist or a park ranger.

After appearing in a few movies aimed at teenagers — including the football drama “Varsity Blues” — he had become something of a pinup idol and was approached about starring in “The Fast and the Furious.” He signed on quickly.

“If I had the same opportunity today, I’d overthink it and probably squander it. But I was young and impressionable, and I wanted to work,” he told The Times in 2011. “I was 24 years old and had just recently had a child out of wedlock,” he said, alluding to the daughter he had with then-girlfriend Rebecca McBrain in 1998, his only child. “I wanted to have fun and needed to put a roof over my baby’s head.”

Others in Hollywood were keen to salute his can-do spirit.

Justin Lin, who helmed Walker in three of the “Fast” pictures, tweeted Sunday that “In a business that barely requires it, @RealPaulWalker was relentlessly selfless, genuine & trying to be better every day.”

“Hours” producer Safran said those qualities were on display in the new film.

“He was so excited for people to finally see his skills as an actor — not just as a good-looking guy who was good at action,” he said.

Times staff writers Samantha Schaefer, Adolfo Flores and Jessica Gelt contributed to this report.