Dwayne Johnson is now the the biggest movie star in the world, literally and otherwise. For years he has remained at our near the top of lists of the highest-paid actors, thanks to a string of hits like Fast Five, Moana, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
Johnson’s success is all the more impressive because he came to Hollywood by way of professional wrestling, which to that point had had produced exactly zero crossover movie stars. Sure, a wrestler might have one good supporting role here or there (like Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride), or they might pick up some work doing action films, but even the sport’s biggest names, like Hulk Hogan and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, fizzled out quickly as leading men. Several other WWE wrestlers have followed Johnson’s path, like Dave Bautista and John Cena, but 20 years ago, going from a sports entertainer to a legitimate movie star was basically unheard of.
Which makes this clip all the more impressive. It’s from a March 2000 episode of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Johnson is the first guest; he’s there to promote that year’s WrestleMania. Film critic Roger Ebert is the second guest — and when he comes out, he begins his segment with a bold prediction:
“This guy is gonna be a major movie star,” he says.
At the time, Johnson had never even been in a movie.
Ebert supposedly based his prediction on watching Johnson host Saturday Night Live, where he was “so relaxed” and “such a natural comedian.” Ebert ordered Johnson to “get out of wrestling as soon as possible” because he could get hurt.
After thanking Ebert for the compliment he did note that he was working on his first movie at the time, 2001’s The Mummy Returns. “So when it comes out…” Johnson trailed off before sticking a thumb in the air.
Alas, The Mummy Returns did not get a thumbs up from Ebert when it came out the following year. But in his two-star review, Ebert doubled down on his prediction. He wrote:
The ads give the Rock, the World Wrestling Federation star, equal billing with [Brendan] Fraser. This is bait-and-switch. To call his appearance a “cameo” would be stretching it. He appears briefly at the beginning of the movie, is transmuted into a kind of transparent skeletal wraith and disappears until the end of the film, when he comes back as the dreaded Scorpion King. I am not sure, at the end, if we see the real Rock or merely his face, connected to computer-generated effects (his scorpion is blown up to giant size, which has the unfortunate effect of making him look more like a lobster tail than a scorpion). I continue to believe the Rock has an acting career ahead of him, and after seeing this movie I believe it is still ahead of him.
Ebert was correct, his questionable appearance in The Mummy Returns notwithstanding. It’s like he was extremely good at his job or something!
Also, I highly recommend watching the entire interview with Johnson for the part where Jay Leno asks him his real name — this is so far back most people only knew him as “The Rock” — and then mocks him when he finds out his name is Dwayne. Not cool, Jay.