Being Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson should be easy, it seems.
He’s bigger, stronger and (we’re told) better-looking than other people. He’s open and amiable. Also, his movies have made more than $12 billion.
But getting there was complicated. When “Young Rock” debuts (8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 16, on NBC), it will bounce between three phases, catching small slices of a large life.
“I lived in 13 different states by the time I was 13 years old,” Johnson (shown here) told the Television Critcs Association. “I also lived in New Zealand.”
The number “13” comes up a lot. His dad was that age when he “was kicked out of the house.” A generation later, Johnson had his own problems.
“Thirteen is when I started to veer off the tracks and do a lot of things that I shouldn’t have been doing,” he said. “I started getting arrested at 13.”
Both men recovered. His dad eventually re-invented himself as Rocky Johnson, a wrestling star. He “was a bad dude in the (ring),” his son said. “And he had a lot of charisma and tons of athletic ability.”
Rocky had sort of married into wrestling royalty. His wife was the adopted daughter of “High Chief” Peter Maivia (a popular wrestler who also battled Sean Connery in the James Bond film “You Only Live Twice”) and Ata Maivia, who became a wrestling promoter.
“My grandmother … was one of the pioneering women in the world of professional wrestling,” Dwayne Johnson said.
Rocky Johnson had a strong career, even combining with tag-team partner Tony Atlas to become the first Black champions in what is now the WWE.
This was before wrestling’s big-money days, but the stars were expected to be bigger-than-life. “They played that role 24 hours a day,” Johnson said, “even if that meant they lived in small apartments. Even if that meant they lived paycheck to paycheck.”
As a kid, Dwayne Johnson loved being with his dad’s colleagues, including Andre the Giant. But early in his teens, he was jolted by the news that his family was moving to the mainland.
“I fought tooth-and-nail with my mom and my dad,” he recalled, “because I did not want to leave …. I really put my foot down – as best as a 14-year-old, punk kid could.”
They left anyway, then “were forced out of Nashville” and tried Bethlehem, Pa., where there was more trouble. His life was salvaged mainly by football talent.
As a defensive tackle at the University of Miami, he rarely started, but was behind some top talent (including future pro great Warren Sapp) on teams that won the Cotton Bowl, the Orange Bowl and a national championship. He tried pro football in Canada, his dad’s homeland, but was cut. “That’s when I had … seven bucks in my pocket.”
He became a pro wrestler, struggled at first, then found his persona as The Rock. Stardom followed, including movies … and now a chance to turn his life into a TV show.
That works, said writer-producer Nahnatchka Khan, because Johnson is “incredibly open and honest.”
They decided to have him appear briefly as himself, narrating three phases of his life, with different actors playing him at ages 10, 12 and 15.
The series seems to fit Khan. Her parents are from Iran, she grew up in Hawaii (as an Iron Shiek fan) and she created “Fresh Off the Boat,” about a Chinese-American family. “So many of us from diverse backgrounds really appreciate … our stories reflected onscreen,” she said.
Now she’s helping tell the very diverse story of Johnson – Samoan on his mother’s side, Black Canadian on his father’s and one of the biggest movie stars on Planet Earth.