In a way, Bruno Lauer, best known to wrestling fans as WWE manager Harvey Wippleman, deserved more than a two-word cameo in the eighth episode of Young Rock. To hear Lauer himself speak of the experience, though, he was honored to even get that opportunity.
Lauer spoke with SlamWrestling.net to look back on his longstanding connections to the Johnson family, his own beginnings in the business, and why he doesn’t consider acting and performing as a manager nearly the same thing.
With only two episodes remaining, NBC’s Young Rock is fast approaching the final episode of its inaugural season next week. While there hasn’t been an announcement regarding any potential second season plans, the show has crammed in plenty of anecdotes about Dwayne Johnson‘s formative years, including an already well-known tale of Johnson buying his first car for $103 and finding a “crackhead” still in the back seat while driving later on.
There was, however, a pretty major player in that story that was left out of the show’s re-telling. Lauer, who became famous as manager Downtown Bruno in Memphis Wrestling before becoming Wippleman in the WWF, was right there with the young Rock himself when he made that purchase — even loaning him some of the money.
As speculated in the SlamWrestling review of the episode, while the production team didn’t include Lauer’s character in those scenes, they were certainly tipping their cap towards him and his history with Johnson by bringing him in for a cameo.
Lauer, for one, never saw the call from Johnson coming — and almost didn’t answer it.
“He called me up out of the blue sky,” Lauer begins, tracing the process of setting up his appearance to months before the shoot. “I didn’t recognize his number, because unfortunately we had lost contact for quite a few years. I almost didn’t pick it up because, I don’t know about you, but you probably get five to ten calls a day with some folks trying to sell you something.”
Lauer answered the call with what he describes as a rude “Yeah, hello.” Even as he realizes it’s not a salesman, he’s still not sure who it is. “He goes, ‘This is somebody that hasn’t talked to you for a while,’ … We re-connected as friends, as we have been since I was barely an adult and he was still a teenager.”
To trace the friendship between Lauer and Johnson back to the start, Lauer backs up even further to when he got his start in the wrestling business and received an assist from Rocky Johnson.
“I went to a fair at the Pennsylvania/West Virginia borderline, it was some kind of country fair,” he recalls. “A guy I was friends with had to work, he had to tear down the midway or something. So, I was bored, and I couldn’t play the games or go on the rides — I didn’t have any money.”
“And there was this wrestling match under a tent, and I wanted to go in and watch it. They said, ‘That’s extra, that’s not part of admission, you have to pay to watch it.'”
Whatever dejected look Lauer had on his face worked some magic, because the conversation then took a turn. “They said, ‘If you’ll say and help us tear the ring down and put it on the truck, we’ll let you come in for free,'” he continues. “I ended up going on the road with those people — with the promoter of Mid-Continental Wrestling out of Jamestown Kentucky named Dale Mann.”
Lauer recounts some of his early exploits working with Mann, which he also explored in his 2008 book Wrestling with the Truth. He struck up friendships with Jonathan Boyd of The Royal Kangaroos tag team, and later on one of The Sheepherders, as well as Hawaiian-born Harold Watanabe who wrestled as Tojo Yamamoto.
It was Rocky Johnson, though, that talked Lauer into becoming a manager.
“I was just a ring crew guy, but in the dressing room I was always teasing people and being a wise guy,” Lauer explains. “Rocky said, ‘Man, look at you. You’re a little bitty guy, running your mouth like that, you could make a good living being a manager.”
“One step led to another, and me and Jerry Lawler, who was one of my dearest friends in the world, got together in Hawaii when he was over there.”
Lauer ended up coming back to Memphis with Lawler and became, in his humble estimation, a big money draw as the heel manager Downtown Bruno. It was Lauer’s debt owed to Rocky for suggesting a manager’s position that led to a strong connection with the Johnson family, which is how he and a young Dwayne forged their bond.
“(Rocky) was one of my mentors, and Dwayne’s mother Ata and I were very close,” Lauer recalls. “In ’83, when I was in Hawaii, (Ata) was like a mother figure to me, and Dewey and I — I was a few years older than him, but we basically grew up together.”
“Sometimes you meet people that you know, one way or another, you’re going to be connected with them for the rest of your life.”
That connection has given Lauer a unique perspective on having watched as Dwayne Johnson evolved into the star he is today.
“When (Dwayne) was a teenager, and I was barely above being a teenager, all we cared about was goofing around,” Lauer says. “As he got into the wrestling business and got older, he wanted to be the best he could be. He listened, he learned, he paid attention, and he learned. It ain’t luck — I don’t care how handsome, strong, or athletic you are.”
The two parted ways, as Johnson embarked on a football path in school and Lauer found his way into the WWF with the help of Sid Vicious. By the year 1996, though, Lauer was working more backstage and Johnson was finished with football — and headed to Corpus Christi, Texas, for a try-out match with the WWF.
“I was the one that brought him up to the arena,” Lauer remembers. “Rocky called me up and said, ‘My son is coming down for a try-out. Do you remember him, Bruno?” I said, ‘Of course I do.’ At that point I hadn’t seen him in about ten years.”
“They sent him to Memphis to work for the USWA, and lo and behold, guess where he lived? In my house — so you talk about full circle. He stayed with me until he got on his feet with some money under his belt. We travelled together every day, and I refereed 99% of his matches. I talked to him in the ring, and helped him all that I could.”
Lauer looks back fondly on the assist he was able to provide for Johnson, feeling in his way he was paying back for how Rocky had helped him. “If he needs a place to stay right now, he’s more than welcome,” Lauer says, following with a laugh. “But I don’t think he’d need that.”
Johnson’s well-documented mutual gratitude for Lauer, expressed in an Instagram post made during the filming of Young Rock that showed the two sharing a laugh together before Johnson gifted Lauer with a new Ford truck.
For his part, Lauer, who appeared to be rendered genuinely speechless by the gift in the video, thought that his appearance on the show, and being able to spend a few moments with Dwayne, was already gift enough.
“I thought he was going to throw me a bone, not throw me a truck,” Lauer quips.
He describes his short time on the set as a brand new type of performing, despite the fact that he’d spent much of his life working his own gimmick in front of crowds. “I’ve never experienced anything like that,” he admits. “I’m the only extra who had my own trailer, and trust me when I tell you, that was a one-off deal.”
“I’m no actor. If they were to give me a big long speech, I’d screw it up so bad that we’d still be doing takes. People call the wrestling business acting, but it’s not. I didn’t have to remember scripts or stand in the right spot. I’ve never acted before and I’ll probably never do it again, but it was an honor.”
“It meant a lot that he thought of me.”
So while there’s a good chance that Lauer’s brief appearance will be his only acting contribution to Young Rock, he does play a large part in the real stories that fuel the series. Then again, if the show does continue further along into Johnson’s life with a new season where he moves into wrestling and Hollywood, someone might end up playing a young Bruno Lauer, and he himself may get a chance to try this acting thing again.
TOP PHOTO: Bruno Lauer and Dwayne Johnson after Johnson gifted his friend with a Ford truck.
- NBC’s Young Rock page
- Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and family story archive
- Slam Wrestling’s Young Rock review and interview archive
- Review of Bruno Lauer’s Wrestling with the Truth book