Paul Walker: Hollywood hero and heartthrob

Paul Walker Walker was best known for playing Brian O'Conner in the Fast & Furious films

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Actor Paul Walker, who has died at the age of 40 in a car crash in California, was a Hollywood heartthrob and action hero.

The Fast & Furious franchise has become one of Hollywood's biggest hits thanks to its reliable formula of high-speed chases, underground gangs and thrilling stunts.

At the heart of the high-octane drama in five out of the six films was Paul Walker, who played Brian O'Conner.

Walker was brought up as a Mormon near Los Angeles and it was his parents who pushed him into modelling and acting.

When his mother, a model, started taking him to her photoshoots as a toddler, he ended up getting more work than she did. The young Walker went on to appear in adverts throughout his time in elementary school.

His father was not in showbusiness - he was a sewer contractor. "My parents never looked at my acting as a career," Walker said. "They saw it as a way to help provide for the household."

Walker's real passion, though, was surfing. That led him to study as a marine biologist at college, but he soon dropped out to pursue a life of, as he once put it, "smoking and living out of a garage".

Fast & Furious 6 Walker was in Fast & Furious 6 with Vin Diesel (centre) and Dwayne Johnson

The acting world called once more when his former agent looked him up to ask him to audition for a role as a surfer in the CBS spiritual drama Touched By An Angel.

A week later, he got a small part in the time-travel caper movie Pleasantville, which starred Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon.

"I figured that acting was a great way to make money so I could continue surfing and avoid real responsibility," Walker later said.

His roles gradually got bigger as he appeared in films like Varsity Blues, playing a high school football star; She's All That, a lightweight teen love story; and The Skulls, about a murky secret society on an Ivy League college campus.

The Skulls was produced by Neal Moritz and directed by Rob Cohen, who told him he reminded them of a young Steve McQueen and encouraged him to take his acting more seriously.

Walker with co-stars Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster Walker, with co-stars Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster

So when Moritz and Cohen came to cast their next film, set in the underground street racing scene of Southern California, they turned to Walker.

"They told me I could play a cop, drive fast cars, make out with a beautiful leading lady and they'd actually pay me," the actor said. "I mean, hey, man, a young guy's fantasy come true."

In The Fast and the Furious, Walker appeared as the undercover cop who infiltrates a street-racing gang led by Dominic Toretto, played by Vin Diesel.

The film was a surprise smash hit, with its first weekend takings in North America surpassing its $38m (£23m) budget.

Walker recalled: "Neal Moritz called me [on the] opening night screaming, 'It's a cultural phenomenon!'"

Disaster charity

When Vin Diesel bowed out of the sequel after a pay dispute, Walker moved centre stage. This time, his character used his street-racing abilities to bust a Miami money-laundering cartel.

The franchise looked set to be short-lived when Walker sat out the third instalment. A fourth film seemed likely to go straight to DVD until Diesel and Walker agreed to return.

A fifth and sixth were made, with the pair teaming up for ever more elaborate high-speed escapades across the world. The series' success grew again, with the sixth film the most popular yet.

Filming has started on a seventh, and just before his death Walker even said the studio had plans to take the total to 10 Fast & Furious films over the next decade.

In between filming that franchise, Walker's other movies included the festive drama Noel; the diving thriller Into the Blue, alongside Jessica Alba; Eight Below, about an Antarctic husky trainer who has to rescue his stranded dogs; and World War II film Flags of Our Fathers.

His latest movie Hours, in which he plays a father struggling in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, is due out later this month.

Outside the film studio, Walker set up his own charity to help the victims of natural disasters. Reach Out Worldwide has sent teams of skilled volunteers to help after earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, a tsunami in Indonesia in 2010 and the recent Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

It was while attending a fundraising event for Reach Out Worldwide on Saturday that Walker died. He was a passenger in a Porsche that crashed, killing the car's driver as well as the actor.

Walker is survived by his 15-year-old daughter Meadow.

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