On tonight’s heartfelt and surprisingly emotional documentary Andre the Giant on HBO, we finally get a true sense of just who this larger-than-life character — both wrestler and actor — was.
In essence it was his enormous generosity, kindness, and sense of humor that endeared him to everyone that crossed his path. With a few exceptions.
HBO Sports and WWE have put together a poignant love letter that is laugh-out-loud funny at times, and tear-inducing as well. This documentary is a first-time partnership between to the two entities and is presented as a feature-length presentation.
Andre is shown from infancy, a normal beautiful baby, and as a child whose body began to take off thanks to a condition neither his family nor Andre knew of, and certainly not any medical person in his tiny French hometown of Molien.
The footage and revealing interviews paint an intimate portrait of this unusual man. Andre’s life is also retold in anecdotes from his peers like Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Billy Crystal, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Vince McMahon, Rob Reiner, family members and more.
Who was Andre the Giant?
Born in France, André René Roussimoff started out like any normal child. But his brothers Antoine and Jacques recall how Andre’s growth spurt began by the time he was eight or nine.
In France, Andre’s physical prowess was noticed. He initially went by the name of Jean Ferré in his earliest wrestling days, before later being billed as Le Géant Ferré.
His names changed repeatedly as he became more famous, going to Monaco, then Japan — as Monster Roussimoff, The Polish Giant, and The Giant Frenchman.
When he came to America, a promoter in Chicago scoffed at the notion of calling Andre the “Giant Fairie” which was what his main name translated to.
In the 1970s, American wrestling was a Balkanized regional draw that had pocket stars in each locale. A fiefdom of 32 separate territories, you had people experiencing success in each region but only as far as local coverage could reach their devoted but small TV audience. Andre was wrestling mainly in the Midwest, where he was called the Polish Giant.
Then, in 1973, Andre joined the Northeast organization where Vince McMahon Sr. famously billed him as Andre the Giant. It was McMahon Sr. who saw the brilliance and draw in Andre and groomed him to be a regional star. But it was his son, Vince McMahon, Jr. who saw the bigger picture and united the leagues, creating what we know today as the WWE.
Andre the Giant was a huge part of that history. At his biggest, Andre was a reported 7ft 4in and over 500 pounds. He wore a size 22 shoe and a size 24 ring. Andre’s sheer height, his baritone voice, and early career athletic prowess made him an unforgettable attraction.
In Battle Royals where the ring is filled with all the wrestlers facing off with each other, few wrestlers took him on. Andre was loaned out to other regions by Vince McMahon to keep him in a rotation and keep interest in this unusual wrestler who wore no mask or crazy costume getup.
What did other wrestlers think of Andre?
WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon said of Andre the Giant: “You could say anything about Andre and people would believe it. The ring on his finger is bigger than your wrist. ‘Oh really! OK.’ You can believe that.
“I used to say to people that Andre had 82 teeth, and they believed it. Yea and I said ‘It’s kinda like when you see his teeth and they’re not real big but they’re like rows of teeth like a shark behind him. No kidding.’ ”
Wrestling Hall of Famer Ric Flair said: “[Wrestler] Larry Henning told me when I first met him, ‘You know he’s got two hearts and two rows of teeth.’ And I believed him. So I always catch myself trying to look at him.
“Every time Andre talked to me I’d be looking for that second row of teeth. I said, ‘He couldn’t have two rows of teeth. I could never see them.’ The two hearts I believed forever.”
“He transcended wrestling,” said Hulk Hogan, who first saw him as a child. “I was hooked immediately,” he says of wrestling and Andre. “He was stronger than all of us, he was bigger than all of us, he kept everybody in line.
“This is not a business of tough guys — if you’re in this business it’s to entertain, and for those guys who thought they were tough guys in this business Andre would straighten them out real quick.”
Bodybuilder and actor Arnold Schwartzenegger noted how generous Andre was all the time. He recalled a dinner with Andre where, after insisting he pay the check, Andre refused to be treated. Arnold said: “He grabs me out of the chair and puts me up on an armoire…like a little doll!”
Wrestler Jerry Lawler said: “Everywhere he went people turned out to see him.” Vince McMahon Jr. said: “Andre was very kind, he took care of the performers he worked with. He never hurt anyone.”
Did Andre the Giant hate anyone in the wrestling profession?
According to Hulk Hogan, that person was Randy Savage, the macho man. “He hated him with a passion,” says Hulk. Savage’s use of baby oil was a particular annoyance to Andre.
Also on Andre’s dislike list? The Sheik. Hulk said: “He irritated the hell out of Andre!” Big John Studd got under Andre’s skin too after allegedly copying his moves, according to Vince McMahon Jr.
What else besides wrestling did Andre do?
On the TV series, The Six Million Dollar Man, Andre played a non-CGI Sasquatch. He was also cast in the part of Fezzik in The Princess Bride which, we learn from director Rob Reiner in the documentary, was written for him by author William Goldman in 1973 before the 1987 eponymous film proved a worldwide hit. Goldman also wrote the script for the movie.
Reiner said: “He was perfect for the part!” adding: “Andre couldn’t fit on a horse.”
How was Andre’s love life?
“They [women] were attracted to him like he was a magnet,” said Hulk Hogan.
Ric Flair laughingly added: “He was wearing a size 24 ring…what else do you want to know?”
Did Andre have a drinking problem?
It was estimated that Andre drank 7,000 calories in alcohol a day. Ric Flair said: “We drank 106 beers together one night.”
“The minimum he would have was 24 [beers],” said Jerry Lawler. Cases of wine were delivered to his dressing room daily.
“Nobody could keep up with him [drinking],” said Hogan.
Andre’s legendary farts
Big man, big fart. “Andre loved to laugh — he so enjoyed flatulence,” said Vince McMahon Jr.
“He loved to get you in an elevator and cut one of those long 30-second farts, like skin flapping together,” said Hulk Hogan.
Hogan recalled farts so bad on planes with Andre that the pilots nearly lost control of the plane.
Andre’s life as his fame grew
Andre traveled a lot — but not in luxury. “There was no level of comfort for Andre when he was on the road,” said Jerry Lawler. Handler Tim White said that on flights to Japan he couldn’t use the toilets at all and had to relieve himself behind a curtain before White would flush the contents down for him.
We also learn how Andre was sensitive and wounded easily when people made unkind remarks. He was always gawked at, and often expressed regret about his size.
Where was home for Andre in the USA?
Andre bought a ranch in Ellerbe, NC. He loved the town, and said it reminded him of the one in France where he grew up.
While there he would replicate his childhood chores of cutting down trees and farming. People in town left him alone and he reveled in the privacy and peacefulness of it.
Did Andre have kids?
Yes, Robin Christensen — although he never knew her well. “He wanted to be part of her life but it just didn’t work out that way,” said his handler, Tim White.
Why was Andre so big?
Acromegaly, a treatable hormonal disorder that results from too much growth hormone (GH) in the body. Andre felt the lord made him the way he was and made him wary of medical help.
In the documentary, his surgeon Dr. Harris Yett says: “He had the features of gigantism…his condition was treatable to a degree.”
Princess Bride star Cary Elwes said: “He drank because he was in [physical] pain.” Co-star Billy Crystal said: “He knew he wasn’t long for this world.”
Pain escalated in his life and he also confided about his back pain to Vince McMahon, who tried to get him to have an operation to alleviate his suffering.
Andre’s career changes
Wrestlemania I’s 1984 footage shows how the boxing world and its stars like Muhammed Ali embraced the wrestlers. Even pop culture artist and icon Andy Warhol showed up.
Wrestling was forever changed by cable TV and Vince McMahon’s vision to unite all the regional leagues. Hulk Hogan was king, and Andre ‘s health was becoming an issue.
Hogan was paired with his friend up until Wrestlemania III in 1987, when he was made to look like a villain.
By then, Andre had had the back surgery and was walking around with a cane. He kept his physical limitations quiet and it bothered Hogan, who worried about him.
By this time, McMahon had put the ghosts of the territorial wrestling federations to bed. Hogan and Andre’s historical match in Pontiac, Michigan, drew over 93,000 people.
Hogan assiduously detailed their scripted fight move by move so that the least amount of physical duress was inflicted on Andre. He won the bout and knew it was over for Andre, who was then scorned by fans. In the documentary, Hogan retells this part of the story in tears.
McMahon said: “Months after months you could see Andre failing.” His handler Tim White added: “You could see he was suffering.”
Andre began to disappear from the scene and spent more time in North Carolina. McMahon surmised that Andre felt he “had no value to himself” and blamed him [McMahon] for abandoning him. He added that he believed Andre resented him because “the business went on without him”.
Andre later went back to France to see his ailing father, who passed away when he arrived. But Andre was quite ill himself. At the Hotel de la Tremoille, where Andre was staying in Paris, he died of a heart attack in his sleep. André Roussimoff was 46 years-old.
When asked in the documentary if Andre’s death affected him more than others in the business, McMahon choked up, barely able to keep his composure. “Oh god. He was special,” he says.
André the Giant airs tonight, Tuesday, April 10, at 10pm ET/PT and 9pm CT on HBO.
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