How Paul Walker Cracked Open The '90s 'Golden Boy' Schtick

"Pleasantville," "Varsity Blues" and "She's All That" featured the actor as a high school jock, but he continually played with the audience's expectations of the stereotype.

Lance Harbor, the golden-haired quarterback of the West Canaan High School football team, tips his blue and white Coyotes hat as he addresses the rowdy pep rally crowd. “I was lying in bed last night,” he starts, high-pitched screams erupting in the auditorium. A smile flashes across his face. Harbor licks his lips and jokes about his dream, in which his team crushes their upcoming competition. Fans cheer with excitement. He throws up the “love” sign, walks off stage and gets an approving pat from his coach. 

While casting the 1999 teen flick “Varsity Blues,” director Brian Robbins looked long and hard for an up-and-coming actor who could encompass all aspects of Harbor, a star athlete who suffers a heartbreaking injury mid-season. 

Soon enough, Paul Walker strolled into his audition room — and he was perfect. 

“It was really about finding an actor who could make that character come to life,” Robbins, now the president of Nickelodeon, told HuffPost. “And I can flat out tell you, when Paul Walker came into the casting session, the casting directors all died. He was just so handsome and charismatic that every one in the building sort of fell apart. He just embodied that character the minute he walked through the door.”

Several people who worked with Walker told HuffPost that the actor, who died at the age of 40 in a tragic 2013 car crash, was also down to earth, friendly and kind ― a California boy who would rather shark dive than be at any hifalutin Los Angeles party. Fame was not something he ever chased, but his talent and good looks led him to eventually become the face of a billion-dollar film franchise.

Paul Walker at the premiere of "Pleasantville" in Los Angeles, California, in October 1998.
Paul Walker at the premiere of "Pleasantville" in Los Angeles, California, in October 1998.

“Paul was just so next-level hot that he was sort of intimidating in his own way,” his “She’s All That” co-star Rachael Leigh Cook told HuffPost. That might explain why he was frequently cast as the pretty boy jock in the late 1990s. Within the span of three months, the then 25-year-old single dad (of a young daughter, Meadow) appeared in a trio of teen-focused films that put him on the map: “Pleasantville,” “Varsity Blues” and “She’s All That.” Walker had that thing, Robbins said, and fully leaned into his laidback West Coast vibe to make his mark as one of several actors on the long list of on-screen “golden boys.”

In 1999, dozens of iterations of the jock hit the big screen. There was Seann William Scott’s over-sexed, foul-mouthed Steve Stifler of “American Pie,” Andrew Keegan’s vain aspiring model Joey Donner in “10 Things I Hate About You” and David Arquette’s problematic man-child Rob Geller in “Never Been Kissed.” But Walker stood out in this sea of dudes, mainly because his iterations played with the audience’s expectations of the stereotype. Each of his characters represented a different level of “the jock” and subverted the idea of what it means to be handsome and popular in high school. He portrayed a courteous hunk, an inspired quarterback and a horny prick, using his own style to give them depth and appeal. 

Walker was raised by his parents, model Cheryl and sewer contractor and boxer Paul Walker III, in Sunland-Tujunga in the San Fernando Valley alongside his three younger siblings. As a cute, personable kid, he booked a few commercials and eventually went on to appear in TV shows in the ’80s and ’90s, including “Highway To Heaven” and “Who’s the Boss?,” as well as the soap opera “The Young and the Restless.”

In his early 20s, Walker started getting incessant calls from bill collectors and decided that a return to acting was a good way to earn some cash, according to the Paramount documentary “I Am Paul Walker.” He signed with a manager, Matt Luber, tested for a few films and almost immediately booked the role of high school basketball star Skip Martin in Gary Ross’ “Pleasantville.” It was a good get for a somewhat newbie, but casting director Debra Zane said hiring Walker was a no-brainer.

“He was absolutely adorable,” she told HuffPost. “Very open, nothing to hide, a tremendous amount of confidence, but equal amounts kindness. He waited in the waiting room alongside Keri Russell and when Keri left, Paul told my assistant he thought Keri was beautiful and that he was in love! He was quite dreamy himself.” 

That “dreamy” look was perfect for the role in 1998’s “Pleasantville,” which follows polar opposite siblings, loner David (Tobey Maguire) and popular Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) after they get magically zapped into their ’90s television set and placed into a black-and-white ’50s sitcom. The inhabitants of “Pleasantville” are peppy, simple-minded folk; one of them being perfect gentleman Skip, who eventually falls for Jennifer and her rebellious ways as the fictional town experiences a sexual and intellectual awakening. 

As Skip, Walker’s aura was immediately apparent. In an early scene, he’s dressed in a crisp white button-down shirt and letterman sweater as he confidently struts into a diner and stares into Jennifer’s eyes. “I don’t know if I ever said this to you before,” he tells her, “but, well, I think you’re just about the keenest girl in the whole school!” He then orders a cheeseburger and a cherry Coke, his smile glistening. 

It’s one thing to play a ’90s teen jock in a ’90s teen movie, but tackling this role, especially as a foray into big budget Hollywood, was surely a challenge for Walker. He played a character who is a caricature — going from an unaware, sweet-natured guy to a typical sex-hungry doofus in 90 minutes. It was an opportunity for Walker to assert himself in the industry and show what he could do with a small supporting role. 

His hard work paid off. Robbins took notice and cast Walker as Lance Harbor in 1999’s “Varsity Blues.” Lance, the town’s treasured quarterback, sustains a career-ending knee injury and is knocked out of the Texas high school football season ahead of championships, providing benchwarmer Jonathan Moxon (James Van Der Beek) the chance of a lifetime. 

Robbins needed someone with the potential to rise to the level of Van Der Beek, who was the most well-known young actor at the time due to the success of The WB’s “Dawson’s Creek.” And Walker proved he could be the perfect foil to a big-name celebrity.

“It wasn’t about finding movie stars. It was really about finding actors who would make those characters come to life,” Robbins said, mentioning cast members Scott Caan, Amy Smart and Ali Larter. “We were just trying to put together an ensemble of unknowns, and it was a big break for them.” 

For Walker, it was a chance to play around with the emotions of a jock driven to the ground by his cruel and relentless coach, Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight). Lance, forced to sit on the sidelines and watch someone else bask in his former glory, realizes he could protect his teammates from Kilmer’s unethical practices, which include using drugs to alleviate injuries. By the end of the film, Lance is looking out for those still able to play the game versus feeling sorry for himself.

Although it’s swirled up with a lot of sex and underage drinking, Walker’s performance is refreshingly nuanced as his character agonizingly takes the cards he’s dealt and moves forward. Walker portrays Lance as not just a party boy who’s good at football, but gives the supporting player dimension, something that’s hard to come by in ’90s teen fare.

But if Lance Harbor painted Walker as a good guy, the role of Dean Sampson in “She’s All That” tossed his whole schtick out the window. Sure, Walker played another high school jock — a soccer player, nonetheless — but this time he was nowhere near the hero golden boy. He had turned heel. 

In the movie, which was released shortly after “Varsity Blues” in January 1999, Dean gives his buddy Zack (Freddie Prinze Jr.) six weeks to date the most unattractive girl at school, Laney (Rachael Leigh Cook) ― who is not unattractive at all, mind you ― and make her prom queen. But once Laney undergoes a drastic makeover, Dean turns on Zack, reveals their bet and asks the former “super geek” to the prom himself in hopes of sleeping with her. Basically, he’s the aforementioned Stifler, Joey and Rob combined into one gross fuckboy. 

Halfway through the movie, we find a shirtless Dean in the locker room, teasing Zack about his non-existent sex life with Laney. His smug smile says it all. “Oh hey man, I’m not baggin’,” he boasts. “I mean, if you’re not gonna partake, do you mind if I do? Because I’m thinking she might be a great little jam.” 

In the menagerie of Walker’s jocks, Dean Sampson is the one who would hit closest to home with viewers’ real life experiences of the athletic, obnoxious, offensive jerk. Director Robert Iscove told HuffPost he cast Walker in the role because he could, once again, be a believable companion to a leading man, in this case Mr. Freddie Prinze Jr. 

“Zack and Dean were the two jocks on campus and best friends growing up,” Iscove said. “So Paul being able to give Freddie a run for his money with the female fans worked in his favor.”

Walker’s ability to stand his ground next to the likes of Van Der Beek and Prinze Jr. in successful teen movies led him to work alongside another well-known young actor: “Dawson’s Creek’s” Joshua Jackson. In 2000’s thriller “The Skulls,” about an Ivy League secret society, Walker impressed director Rob Cohen with his ability to stand out and fully embrace the role of “a scion of a wealthy east coast family,” despite being as California as they come.  

“I knew he could make a wonderful leading man and, down the road, an action hero,” Cohen told HuffPost. That’s why he asked Walker to headline his next movie, “The Fast and the Furious,” in which he would play Brian O’Conner, an undercover police officer searching the illegal street racing world for a crew of hijackers. Brian’s a mashup between a jock and a cop — a handsome thrill seeker who becomes enamored with race cars while on duty. 

Little did Walker know “The Fast and the Furious” would make him a household name and spawn a film franchise worth $5 billion, a series that’s still going strong 20 years later with the latest installment, “Hobbs and Shaw.” With that blockbuster success, he solidified his on-screen evolution from a memorable sidekick to a bona fide headliner. 

“When Paul Walker walked in the room, you thought, ‘Oh, he’s a movie star,’” Robbins said. “Paul had it.” 

For The Love of 1999 is a weeklong series offering some totally bangin’ essays and analysis of some hot — or not — TV, music, movies and celebrities of 1999. Keep checking back this week for more sweet content.

(Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Alamy/Getty)

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