May 30, 1994 12:00 PM

FAME IS FICKLE, BUT IF YOU’RE A WORLD leader, a movie heartthrob or a sitcom star, the chances are that when you least expect it, a tall, brown-haired stranger will come up to you and say, “Hello, I’m Paul Walton from San Diego.” Then this cheerful fellow will hand his $130 Konica to a bystander and ask you to pose with him for a picture. Walton, a former supersalesman for U.S. Sprint Communications, has been traveling the world for six years getting snapshots of himself with celebrities including Dan Rather, Clint Eastwood and Janet Jackson. All he needs is a chef and some tables and he could open a bad restaurant. And his motives are simple. “If I can’t be famous,” says Walton, 38, “I at least want to be around people who are.”

How does Walton manage to attend the Oscars, presidential Inaugurations, Carnival in Rio and the Kentucky Derby—and still find time to earn a living? The answer is he doesn’t. Walton owes his freedom from wage slavery to a 1988 out-of-court settlement requiring Sprint, by then his former employer, to pay him $1.7 million in back commissions and penalties. He has invested that sum wisely, he says, and needn’t sweat the $72,000 it costs him annually to chase fame. “I never have to work again, nor do I want to,” Walton says happily. “My dream is to travel the world and live off room service.”

And, of course, take lots of pictures. Walton’s philosophy of celebrity-seeking is, he says, “the antithesis of the Wayne’s World thing—you know, the kids who say. ‘We’re not worthy’ [to meet the rich and famous]. You have to believe you’re worthy.” His technique involves striding up “very politely and confidently” and introducing himself.

It’s simple, but it gets results. Walton has met Tom Cruise on the Washington set of A Few Good Men in 1991, chatted with Ted Turner and Jane Fonda at 1992’s Earth Summit in Brazil and briefly cradled Tom Hanks’s Oscar statuette at a party after this year’s Academy Awards ceremony in L.A. When he introduced himself to Yasir Arafat at the National Press Club in New York City last September as “Paul Walton, Jewish, from San Diego,” the PLO chairman “looked me right in the eye, took my hands with both his hands and held them tight.” One of the few A-list celebrities who have ever said no to a photo is Demi Moore. “But she was very nice about it,” says Walton. “I guess she just wasn’t in the mood for a picture that day.”

So far, Walton has found enough celebs who are in the mood to fill 50 photo albums, currently in the care of his father, Sidney, 75, a widower and retired chemical engineer. Walton, who graduated from San Diego Slate with a degree in public administration in 1977, lives in a three-bedroom condo with two roommates, but is definitely in the market, he says, “for a woman to share all this with.” That search, though, could last longer than his quest for Sandra Bullock, the sexy star of last year’s Demolition Man and one of his favorite still-unmet celebrities. The woman of Walton’s dreams, after all, must stay by his side through good times and bad, promise to be true—and always remember to lake off the lens cap.

JAMIE RENO in San Diego

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