#WWF238 – Andre The Giant – Larger Than Life

Lee Maughan: In the pre-DVD era, the WWF was largely unwilling to admit it even had any history, despite prefixing many New Generation era broadcasts with the slogan “For over 50 years, the revolutionary force in sports entertainment!” There were largely two reasons for this; Firstly, many of the WWF’s legendary stars of yesteryear were on very bad terms with the promotion (Bruno Sammartino, ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham), or were working for the opposition (Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Roddy Piper). Secondly, the WWF was always about the now, about what was current and what was happening. Who cared about Don Muraco or Pedro Morales anymore? The promotion figure most of its fan base was made up of young children who wouldn’t even know those names anyway, and as such, it wasn’t worth wasting any airtime, video tape or magazine print on them at the expense of current superstars.

 

The one notable exception was all-time legend and McMahon loyalist Andre the Giant. A special attraction booked out by Vince McMahon Sr. to promotions all across the country, Andre was one of the few guys of the 70s and 80s known nationwide from more than just magazine coverage. His size precluding him from staying in any single area for much more than a week at a time lest he lose his appeal, Andre would bump around from territory to territory, usually making annual or bi-annual appearances for special supercards, blowoffs where the babyface needs the ultimate tag team partner, or for special battle royal attractions (the regular claim that Andre was the winner of more battle royals than anyone else in history was likely not just typical pro-wrestling bluster.)
With André advancing in years (exacerbated by his Acromegaly), he was never going to be a serious candidate for a jump to WCW once the regional territorial system began dying out, and his death in January 1993 from congestive heart failure resulted in the WWF creating its Hall of Fame specifically to honour his memory and, somewhat cynically, allowed them to celebrate his legacy safe in the knowledge that for sure he wouldn’t show up on opposition TV. In the absence of Andre (as well as Hogan and Sammartino), Jimmy Snuka would become the WWF’s go to legend, but Andre was the first guy the notoriously stubborn WWF were openly willing to mythologize as a Babe Ruth-type figure for wrestling.
This tape is actually a break from the norm as the documentary was originally produced by A&E for The Biography Channel in 1999, with the WWF later cashing in by giving it an official VHS release. Despite the somewhat independent nature of the production, there’s still plenty of hyperbole to be found, as an unrecognisably thin Gorilla Monsoon calls André “the most recognisable sports figure of the 20th century, along with Muhammad Ali.” Gorilla was grade A bullshitter right to the end.
Ominously, our tale starts with this corker – “In the summer of 1986, 92,000 people filled the SilverDome in Pontiac Michigan to see Hulk Hogan wrestle Andre the Giant for the World Heavyweight championship. It was the largest audience ever assembled under one roof for a sporting event.” The voiceover announcer goes on to “educate” us that “Throughout a 20 year career, the Giant had never been defeated”, which is about as accurate as claiming WrestleMania III took place in the summer of 1986, that it drew 92,000 people, or that it was the largest audience ever assembled under one roof for a sporting event. Close perhaps, but no cigar. Hogan’s victory that night is declared an “upset” despite repeated assertions that André was “past his prime” (also a bizarre instance of a non-WWF produced documentary actually keeping kayfabe and ignoring the predetermined nature of the outcome.)
André René Roussimoff was born on May 19, 1946 in the French farming village of Moliens (not Grenoble, as commonly repeated), the third of five children to Boris and Mariann Roussimoff, a couple of Belgian and Polish ancestry who emigrated to France prior to World War II. At birth, André weighed an astonishing eleven pounds, although his brothers and sisters were all born and grew to “normal” sizes. It’s believed that André’s paternal grandfather had been 7’8, but none of the family still living have ever been able to confirm that claim.
André was a good, quiet student who particularly excelled at math, and spent much of his spare time playing soccer, usually as a goalkeeper. André’s brother Jacques recounts that as children, their parents allowed them much freedom, but that they were also poor and had to work a lot to make ends meet. By the time he was 16, André was already over six feet tall, and weighed over 240 pounds. Eventually working the harvest with his father, André quit school, deciding he didn’t need an education to spend a lifetime working in a field that was not his own. A two year woodwork apprenticeship brought him as much hope for the future as farming did, as did a stint working in a factory building hay bailers.
Continuing to grow, André was invited to join a local rugby club, but declined as he much preferred soccer. By the time he was 18 however, news of his existence had spread to Paris, and a local wrestling promoter soon showed up at the Roussimoff household with big money promises of turning André into a special attraction. From a mid-80s episode of Tuesday Night Titans, ‘Lord’ Alfred Hayes recalls collecting a teenage André and taking him to Porte de Versailles, but André’s parents weren’t entirely happy with his decision to leave. Moving to Paris, André took a day job as a mover and spent his nights training in a wrestling gym, but he found it difficult to adapt.
The ill-informed voiceover man calls wrestling “90% performance, 10% competition”, which is one of the oddest estimations I’ve ever heard, but has a point in noting that pro wrestling appealed a lot more to those who found amateur or Olympic grappling “boring”, dubbing the pro game “sports entertainment”. Hey, if you want the WWF to give you access to video clips, sooner or later you’re going to have to bite the bullet and let them put their idiosyncratic spin on things.
Back home in 1965, André was drafted into the French peacetime army, but he was deemed unfit for service as the army had no shoes big enough, beds long enough or trenches deep enough to accommodate him. Back in Paris, André began training with legendary French-Canadian star Edouard Carpentier who taught him how to bump, and told him to get as much in-ring experience as he could in preparation for Carpentier bringing him to the United States.

 

French promoters billed André as ‘Geant Ferre’, the name of a legendary French lumberjack, and he spent the next few years wrestling throughout Europe and Africa, in arenas and on the carnival circuit. It was on the carnival shows that André would challenge audience members to fight him. He never lost, and he was quickly the centre of attention. His trips home were highly anticipated, and a sign that read “Moliens, Population: 27” would be changed to read “Moliens, Population: 30” whenever André was back in town for card games with his friends.
By 1969, Carpentier was ready to bring André to the States, but André had already signed a contract to wrestle in Japan as ‘Monster Roussimoff’. It was over in Japan where André was examined for the first time by a prominent doctor, who diagnosed him with a rare glandular disorder known as Acromegaly, a condition which caused his body to continue secreting growth hormones. André literally could not stop growing, and he got bigger and bigger with each passing year. Unwilling to see another doctor for treatment despite being told he wouldn’t live past 40, André ignored the issue and never spoke a word of it to his family. Long-time friend Arnold Skaaland believed that was always in the back of André’s mind, and was what was led to his drinking in such great excess. ‘Classy’ Freddie Blassie on the other hand felt the drinking came about because André was lonely. “When you’re as big as he was, people look at you like you’re a freak, and you resent that eventually. And I’m sure he did, because he had feelings just like you or I.”
After his tour of Japan André headed to Montreal to hook up with Carpentier where, as Carpentier had predicted, he was an instant hit with fans. The problem was that before long, the novelty wore off as promoters were unable to find opponents to match up with him. Looking for a solution, Carpentier called Vince McMahon, Sr, who proposed a constant road schedule where André would never outstay his welcome as an attraction in any given area. McMahon also suggested a name change, as Jean Ferre meant little to American fans. From that point on, he would simply be billed as ‘Andre the Giant’.
In 1971, McMahon became the (real life) manager of André, and he once again found himself an instant hit with fans in McMahon’s World Wide Wrestling Federation. During this period, André developed a taste for fine wine, in addition to consuming copious amounts of food that few could keep up with, enjoying a full five course meal every single night. Notes André’s long-time friend, travel companion and WWF referee Tim White in a completely serious tone: “The legend that travels around with André, the food, the drink… He could do this, he could do that, he ate sixteen steaks, twelve lobsters, drank a case of beer, ten bottles of wine and finished it off with a bottle of Jack Daniels. Well, I’m here to tell you, it’s all true.” More legendary than his eating were the tales of André’s drinking. The most famous is the oft-recounted story of the night he drank over a hundred bottles of beer in one sitting, and on many occasions, would down multiple bottles of blended whiskey before dinner, several bottles of wine during it and polish it off with cognac for dessert, but exact numbers are hard to corroborate as his drinking partners would usually be unconscious long before André crossed the finish line. Even more amazingly, André was always the designated driver after his gargantuan drinking sessions, usually because most of his friends would end up sick.
Skaaland continues with his sad tales of André’s loneliness – “He used to tell me sometimes, he said “You know Arnie, I’d like to see a play. You know, I heard so much about these plays on Broadway, I’d like to go.” I said “Well André, I’ll get some tickets and we’ll go.” He said “No Arnie, I can’t. I couldn’t go to a play. First of all, I can’t fit in the seats, and if I could find a seat I’d be blocking everybody off. Everybody would be looking at me…” “He really felt bad because he couldn’t go see a play.”
André also felt he didn’t need to keep himself in shape because nobody could match up to him in the ring anyway. Frenchy Bernard, the manager of André’s estate recalls that he never jogged or ran, and never used any of the weightlifting equipment or treadmills that he bought. Killer Kowalski still praises André as “exceptionally good” in the ring, and Bernard puts André over for always looking after his opponent in the ring more than himself, which is standard wrestling etiquette.
André frequently made light of his inconveniences, he struggled daily with discomfort and indignities, routinely sitting on the floor in airplanes unable to accommodate him even in first class. White recalls that he would regularly be swamped by the public before going to hotel rooms and finding the beds to be too small. He would also be unable to dial the telephone to reception because his fingers were too large (“like bananas” notes Blassie) and he would frequently be chased around the hotel by fans who would call his room all night, causing him to up sticks and change hotels in the middle of the night after it got to be too much. One night in a bar, a group of guys started poking the sleeping bear by telling André he might be big but he wasn’t strong. Pushed to his limits, André gave chase and the four guys bailed to their car. Unable to unlock the doors, André simply picked the car up and turned it completely over, the four guys still inside it. André was gone before a group of police officers arrived, confused as to how the guys had gotten into such a predicament and sceptical of their drunken tales of an angry giant being responsible.
Nearing 30, André was finding himself a mainstream celebrity, thanks in large part to his status as one of the first travelling “superstars” of wrestling, at a time when all but the NWA World Champion would stick to one geographical region at a time before moving on after several weeks, months or years. Vince McMahon, Jr. thinks the appeal of André lay in his status as a real-life fairy story, noting that everybody growing up reads Jack and the Beanstalk. He also recounts that Andre had girlfriends in every town, but that there were two women very special to him, aside from his mother. Rene Goulet mentions that he would have married the first of those women, had he not been on the road so much. The second was a daughter from the Seattle area whom he rarely ever spoke of. According to White, André wanted to bring her to his ranch and get to know her, but problems with her mother prevented that from happening, which hurt him quite a bit.
By the end of the 70s, André was over 400 pounds and still growing, but his indulgent lifestyle and the rigours of constant wrestling were taking their toll. By the early 1980s and into his mid-30s, he was told by doctors that he wouldn’t reach 40. Instead of taking the news as a death sentence, he put it to the side and took it as a reminder to live life to the fullest. As the mid-80s rolled around and the WWF was becoming a national powerhouse, André’s body was quickly beginning to break down. A broken ankle was credited to Japanese-born Mongolian stereotype Killer Khan, but in reality the injury had happened when he simply got out of bed one morning. The recovery was a slow and painful process, made all the harder by the lack of crutches long enough or strong enough to support him.
Before long, his Acromegaly started to catch up with him. Unable to physically grow any more, he began aging rapidly, his joints unable to handle the stress of his weight, causing him to slow down significantly as he began to look like a completely different person. Gone was the washboard stomach and giant-yet-proportioned limbs, replaced by a stooping, hunched ogre of a man. In his younger years, he had turned to drink but as he got older, the pain in his back and knees were too much to take and he could no longer mask the pain.
In 1986, André travelled to England to undertake arguably his most famous role, and certainly the one most non-wrestling fans would recognise him from, portraying Fezzik, the gentle giant in Rob Reiner’s beloved romantic fantasy adventure comedy The Princess Bride. Gorilla recalls that André loved doing the movie and that he considered it one of the greatest things he ever did in his life. While in England, André opted to have surgery to ease the pain in his back, but his anaesthesiologist was terrified about what dosage to give him. He was scared that too much would kill him, but also fearful that André would wake up with his back laid open if they didn’t give him enough. All they were able to equate it to was his drinking, where André suggested he needed around two litres of vodka just to get a buzz. The operation was considered a success, but all it did was create another problem; André was no longer able to bend over, resulting in more difficulty, and more pain. “I would say after his surgery on his back, he was never the same” says Bernard, sadly.
André was soon back in the ring however, matching up with Hulk Hogan in the main event of WrestleMania III. André’s (admittedly few and mostly forgotten) previous losses were ignored, and the match was sold on one simple premise: Could the Hulk beat the unbeatable Giant? McMahon recalls that Hogan was extremely worried about the match, and couldn’t believe what André was going to do for him and for the business. He also gushes with praise for André setting the example for all other wrestlers to follow in how to do the right thing and give back to the business that made his fortune, even allowing Hogan to bodyslam him on his surgically repaired back.

 

Passing his 41st birthday and no longer wrestling’s star attraction, André was aware he was living on borrowed time, but he never stopped wrestling. He signed on for several rematches with Hogan, but fans quickly caught on to the fact his skills were rapidly diminishing. In truth, the once-agile Giant had deteriorated so quickly he could barely move, even with assistance. He soon began seeking peace and refuge from the spotlight on a ranch he’d bought in Ellerbe, North Carolina. Away from the spotlight, André was finally able to relax, playing cards, barbecuing and drinking with only his closest friends. His favourite recreative was riding around on an ATV, checking out the longhorn cattle he raised, and he enjoyed watching TV late into the night on a specially-made recliner, before sleeping all day long.
In December 1992, André wrestled his last match (a six-man tag alongside Giant Baba and Rusher Kimura against Haruka Eigen, Motoshi Okuma, and Masa Fuchi). By this point having swelled to over 550 pounds, every movement required painful effort. One night he told Frenchy that if he died, he wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered on the farm. It was a subtle hint that André realised he was dying, though not from his disease, but of a broken heart. He missed wrestling that much.
“The end was like the way he lived it” says White. “He never, ever complained. I had stopped at the ranch, it was just before New Year. André at that time was on crutches and his condition had taken over him. I was in tears because he was hurting so bad, yet he was so happy that I stopped through that he was telling jokes. Matter of fact, I told him “Boss, I’m going to leave at about 8 tomorrow morning.” This is something he never did when we were on the ranch, he goes “What time? I’m gonna get up, we’ll have something for breakfast and then you can go.” He never would do that. When I drove away, I knew something was wrong and it just killed me because… you know, he was just the greatest, and it really hurt. That was the last time I saw him.”
Just after New Year 1993, André got a call to come back to France. His father had passed away. For days after the funeral, André hung around in his village, playing cards with his old friends. Every night, he would drive back to Paris and sleep in a hotel. Then, on the night of January 27, 1993, André finally went to sleep, and never woke up. His chauffeur found him in the morning, and his death was attributed to congestive heart failure from a build-up of fluid in his body. At the time of his death, he was 530 pounds, and had surprised confounded doctors by living until the age of 46. As one of his village friends notes, “He was a very simple person, a person who loved his village, loved the people he was around… He died too quickly. He deserved a better destiny.”
As André had requested, his body was returned to North Carolina where it was cremated two weeks after his death. More than 200 of André’s friends attended the funeral including Vince McMahon, Jr., Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Rene Goulet and Mad Dog Vachon. After the ceremony, Frenchy rode a horse around the ranch to spread Andre’s ashes. Unfortunately, a touching documentary ends how it begins, with another ridiculous voiceover: “Andre the Giant was modern wrestling’s first and only international attraction. On his broad shoulders, wrestling rose from its status as questionable sport to become big business and, some might argue, performance art.” Oh, boy.

 

Summary: Aside from a few spurious claims from the voiceover scattered at the beginning and end of the production, this is an engrossing, fascinating and touchingly sad tale of not just Andre the Giant, pro wrestling icon, but of André Roussimoff, loyal friend and gentle giant. The only real complaints you could make about it are the brief running time owing to its status as a TV production, and the lack of talking head appearances from some of his other contemporaries such as Hulk Hogan, Bruno Sammartino, Harley Race or Bobby Heenan (who in other interviews has told the hilarious story of André asking an air hostess for a screwdriver and her bringing him an actual screwdriver rather than a drink – “He’s a drunken giant, we’re on an airplane, don’t bring him tools! What would you have brought over if he’d said ‘Bloody Mary’!?”), or from his celebrity friends like Rob Reiner, Cary Elwes and Arnold Schwarzenegger (who also has a hilarious story of his own about André’s vast generosity, with Schwarzenegger attempting to secretly pay for dinner one night while filming Conan the Destroyer in Mexico, only to find himself being lifted up by the armpits by André and basketball great Wilt Chamberlain, carried out of the restaurant and gently sat down on the hood of his car with André declaring “No! You make me very angry Arnold!”).
It’s too bad that even in the nostalgia-fuelled DVD biography era of the mid-2000s, WWE never felt compelled to recut this documentary into a feature length piece, or indeed produce an entirely new documentary of their own, instead choosing to cheaply re-release an old Coliseum Video feature on Andre that they had previously released in the mid-80s. Perhaps that owes in large part to the fact that most of the useable footage of his matches they have in their vault comes from his waning years, but his life story is much more interesting than most, and would more than make up for a lacklustre second disc of mostly bad matches. Still, the Ultimate Warrior was hardly a wizard of the ring wars, and if he can get a three-disc DVD set, then the iconic André is certainly deserving of similar coverage.
Verdict: 95

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