'Rock' Rocks a New Image: Family-Film Star

Throwing Dwayne Johnson across a room isn't easy.

Andy Fickman learned that the hard way. The director of "Race to Witch Mountain," out today, searched for weeks to find an actor who could toss the 6-foot-4, 250-pound hulk across a stage.

"You wouldn't believe how far down we had to go into Central Casting to find someone big enough to rough Dwayne up," Fickman says. "We were shopping for thugs. Finally, we just told Dwayne that when the actor grabs him, he may have to leap a little."

That, Johnson can do.

Few actors have made as many successful career jumps. From his troubled teenage years to a lucrative professional wrestling stint to, finally, Hollywood, Johnson has spent most of his life dodging typecasts.

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Yet he finds himself moving toward a brand few would have thought possible five years ago: family-film star.

He has given up wrestling. He no longer goes by "The Rock."

Instead, he has been starring in family-geared movies such as 2007's The Game Plan and last summer's "Get Smart." He appeared in the Disney Channel's "Cory in the House" and is hosting Nickelodeon's Kids' Choice Awards on March 28.

After "Mountain," a reboot of the 1970s Disney franchise, he'll star in the kid-friendly comedy"Tooth Fairy" and the animated Planet 51, both due in November.

And he's making no apologies to fans who still remember him best for cracking folding chairs over opponents' heads.

"When a family film is done well, there's a character that every member of the audience can relate to," he says during a break from shooting Mountain on the Disney lot. "I want to be one of those guys. I never wanted to be pigeonholed as the athlete who acted or the wrestler who did action movies."

It's understandable that Johnson works to shake the jock-turned-actor mantle. Few athletes have made a successful leap from sport to film.

"Mountain" could be a measure of just how far Johnson, 36, has come from his days as a football star and a wrestling icon. "Game Plan" and 2006's "Gridiron Gang" kept Johnson in a sports setting. In "Mountain," Johnson plays a cabbie who discovers two alien children on the run from extraterrestrials and government agents.

Like many of Johnson's career decisions, he took the role largely because few could picture him in it. In college, he approached the University of Miami because they didn't openly recruit him. He almost got the part in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" before director Tim Burton gave the role to friend Johnny Depp.

"If you tell me there's something I can't do, I'll want to do it even more," says Johnson. "Especially when it comes to entertaining. I knew early on that I wanted to entertain in some form. And I knew I would work as hard as anyone to do it."

Wrestling with success

He wasn't always a man with direction. Born in Hayward, Calif., Johnson moved often with his family as his father, the acclaimed wrestler Rocky Johnson, worked the local circuits.

By the time his family moved to Hawaii, Johnson was a problem kid. Arrested multiple times for theft and fighting, Johnson says he drifted until he discovered football. He earned a scholarship with the Hurricanes and played with NFL greats Ray Lewis and Warren Sapp.

Johnson played briefly with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League, though he made so little money that he accepted a free mattress thrown away by a flophouse.

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