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Dwayne Johnson: 'Young Rock' would make late father proud

 Dwayne Johnson produced and stars in a series about his childhood, Young Rock. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
 Dwayne Johnson produced and stars in a series about his childhood, "Young Rock." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 15 (UPI) -- Dwayne Johnson began to develop an NBC comedy series about his childhood with executive producers Nanatchka Khan and Jeff Chiang in 2018. When Johnson's father, Rocky Johnson, died in 2019, Young Rock became a tribute to him.

"For the first time, certainly in primetime, we are showcasing this world that he, and all of his brothers of the ring, gave their life to," Johnson said on a Television Critics Association Zoom panel. "To showcase it through the lens of something that's positive would have meant a lot to my dad."

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Johnson appears in Young Rock as his future self, running for president in 2032. He sits down for an interview with Randall Park to explain how he got where he is.

Young Rock flashes back to Johnson in Hawaii in 1982, Bethlehem, Pa., in 1987 and at the University of Miami in 1990. Now 48, the show presents Johnson at 10, 15 and 18.

Actors Adrian Groulx plays Dwayne Johnson at 10, Bradley Constant at 15 and Uli Latukefu at 18. Joseph Lee Anderson plays his father, Rocky Johnson, throughout.

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"I spent a lot of time with Joseph just talking about my dad, that complicated, tough-ass relationship that I had with my dad," Johnson said.

Johnson said Anderson's performance captured the tough love Rocky Johnson displayed toward his son.

"My dad was kicked out of his house at 13 and he was homeless," Johnson said. "That then shaped the man who then raised me."

In 1982, Rocky Johnson already was a star on the wrestling scene. Pro Wrestlers like Andre the Giant (Matthew Willig) and Iron Sheik (Brett Azar) socialized at the Johnson home. Johnson said Anderson also captured how Rocky appealed to so many colleagues and competitors with charisma and compliments.

"My dad had this unique ability to always make someone feel good," Johnson said. "Those are the special people out there in the world who just have this unique ability to make you feel good the moment you come in the room."

Johnson used the name Rocky Maivia when he entered the World Wrestling Federation (later World Wrestling Entertainment) in 1996. By 1997, he was simply The Rock. He wanted Young Rock to pay tribute to the wrestlers with whom he grew up, in addition to his own journey.

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"I was truly a love letter to professional wrestling," he said.

Rocky Johnson's persona was rich and successful. Young Rock shows how the Johnson family would leave the arena and go home to a small motel.

"The series has really allowed me to appreciate those hard times that much more," Johnson said. "[I] never understood that things were actually tougher than they appeared in terms of lifestyle."

Young Rock is a family comedy, but Johnson wanted it to show his and his family's struggles, too. Johnson said his family was evicted from Hawaii when he was 14. They temporarily lived in Nashville for less than a year.

"Within the course of about nine months, I was in three different cities," Dwayne Johnson said. "There was a real instability in Bethlehem when we first got there."

By the time Johnson was 15, he turned to shoplifting to acquire clothing his family could not afford. Young Rock includes some of his criminal incidents.

"I was still stealing because I wanted to present myself in a way that truly wasn't me," Johnson said.

He said he was having an identity crisis as a teenager. Shoplifting was one way he could dress the part of a different person.

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"I didn't want to be known as Dwayne when I moved from high school to high school," Johnson said. "I called myself Tomas."

Johnson said the '90s segment of Young Rock will touch on his postgrad struggles. He played football for University of Miami, but did not make it to the NFL.

"When you're done with your college career, you're done," Johnson said. "You don't get another shot at it."

Rocky Johnson is a significant influence on Young Rock's life, but the show celebrates the rest of the Johnson family too. Johnson said his grandfather, High Chief Peter Maivia, who died in 1982 before the events in the show, taught Rocky the balance of tough love.

"My grandfather was a tough, tough guy [with] just a big, big heart," Johnson said. "He was one of the quiet anchors of our series," he said.

Peter's wife, Lia, is included in Young Rock. She is played by Ana Tuisila.

"It kind of all started from him and my grandmother," Johnson said.

Finally, Johnson also wanted to credit his mother, Ata. Stacey Leilua plays Ata on Young Rock, and the real Ata Johnson supports the show behind the scenes.

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"Every time she sees a trailer or any one of these episodes, she starts crying," Johnson said.

Young Rock premieres Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. EST on NBC.

Moments from Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's career

World Wrestling Federation (WWF) star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson poses with his wax image at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in New York City on April 10, 2002. Earlier that year, the wrestler starred in his first acting role in "The Scorpion King." Photo by Ezio Petersen/UPI | License Photo

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