As he sets out in search of Willie Nelson ("I own one of his Trigger guitars—one of only 100. So cool!"), Ray Charles, and Lil' John, Johnson stops dead in front of Rod Stewart's It Had to Be You... The Great American Songbook. "It's fantastic!" he exclaims. "Songs 2 and 11. I'm telling you." And that's when the people begin to flock. Recognition, followed by awe, then a truly weird loss of physical coordination, washes over the clump of customers in the Top 20 section. Soon Johnson is surrounded by a dozen or so people, four telling him that their mother loves him, a few frenziedly tearing the plastic wrap from Walking Tall DVDs for him to sign, and one proactive teen in a baggy shirt and falling-down pants imploring him, "Dude... just keep rocking. Wow, man, the Rock!"
Johnson has always been a one-man show. He puts it down to only-child syndrome: "Mom would set up the video recorder, and I used to go from Michael Jackson dances to my favorite movie monologues—Rocky II, Rocky III." There's also the DNA factor: His grandfather, "High Chief" Peter Maivia, was a star in the old World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment), and his father, Rocky Johnson, was a WWF tag-team champion. The high-laced-boot business didn't appeal to him initially, which is why Johnson wanted to parlay his four years as a star defensive tackle at the University of Miami into a career spent pile-driving millionaire quarterbacks into the manicured lawns of the NFL. When three exploded disks in his spine killed the dream, he limped into the low-rent Canadian Football League for $175 a week before getting cut from his team and going home to his girlfriend (now wife), Dany Garcia, in Florida.
There, facing the abyss, Johnson saw the light: He would follow genetic destiny after all. In 1996 he joined the WWF, and realizing his good-guy act was going nowhere, he became a heel—a bad guy. By 2000, thanks to his hot-fudge baritone, that hammy eyebrow, and the protein-rich physique, Johnson was on the cover of Newsweek with a New York Times No. 1 best seller, The Rock Says..., in his back pocket. Pop-culture phenoms—especially camera-ready ones—can't stay off the big screen for long, and Johnson soon found himself leading a dog-headed army through the desert in a short scene in The Mummy Returns., Practically before the director yelled cut, Universal was thinking spin-off to capitalize on Johnson's obvious run-roar-impale appeal. A year later, he had his own vehicle, The Scorpion King, for which he earned $5.5 million—the biggest check ever for a first-time top-billing actor. The film grossed a modest $160 million worldwide—hardly a blockbuster, but enough to send the message that the Rock was on his way.