Frenchman André René Roussimoff was worshipped in the United States as the greatest wrestler in living memory. He passed away in 1993, and remains a figure shrouded in mystery. In an HBO documentary beginning on April 10, American director Jason Hehir offers an intimate portrayal of the man everyone knew as “André the Giant.”
Twenty-five years following his death, André Roussimoff continues to make heads turn. His physique – 7 ft. 3, 520 pounds — and his sporting prowess — a career spanning 27 years and more than 5,000 fights – made him part of American folklore alongside popular heroes such as Paul Bunyan and Davy Crockett.
“Our culture has an appetite for stories that are truly larger than life,” says Jason Hehir. “I heard so many stories about André, but none of them were true. My goal is to tell the story of André Roussimoff the human being, not the giant or the carnival attraction.”
The Birth of a Giant
André Roussimoff was born in 1946 in Molien, a village on the Marne river between Meaux and Château-Thierry. His impressive physique meant he was soon scouted and began a career as a professional wrestler, first in Paris, then in England and Japan. On June 1, 1971, André fought for the first time in North America, in the suburbs of Montreal. The Frenchman had adopted “Géant Ferré” as his stage name in reference to a hero from the Hundred Years’ War, but the Quebecer flyers all billed him as “the Giant from the French Alps.”
The nickname stuck. Two years later, the French wrestler climbed into the ring at Madison Square Garden in New York. The crowd cheered out for André the Giant — the lumberjack of superhuman strength raised in the mountains. André was quick to accept his new identity, and until his death claimed to be born in Grenoble, a city in the French Alps popular with Americans since the 1968 Winter Olympics. The white lie was accepted, and it is still marked as his official birthplace on his Wikipedia page.
The wrester became an attraction in and of himself, and legend soon took over from reality. In the days before cable television and YouTube, fans had to rely on obscure magazines to follow their favorite wrestlers. While waiting for fights to come to their towns, they would share a variety of rumors and stories. It was said the Giant had two hearts and two rows of teeth. He was also supposedly famed for drinking 106 cans of beer in a single evening, and fighting (and beating) 20 people all at once. His shock of hair, booming voice, and broken English only added to the myth.
A Giant with Feet of Clay
The World Wrestling Federation (formerly the WWF, now the WWE) went professional in the early 1980s. The arrival of cable, followed by satellite television, enabled fights to be broadcast across the country, and so began the “golden age” of professional wrestling in the United States. André became the first French person to win the heavyweight world champion title, while also pursuing other activities. He starred in Cyndi Lauper’s music video for “The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough” (1985), and in Rob Reiner’s 1987 movie, The Princess Bride.
But the life of the “Eighth Wonder of the World” was one of suffering. He was over 6 ft. 6 by the time he was a teenager, and quickly grew too big for the world around him. “Everything was uncomfortable for him,” says Jason Hehir, who interviewed 25 people who knew André for the documentary. “There was never a fork or a knife, or a chair, or a bed, or a bathroom that was made for a man of that size.”
In Jason Hehir’s documentary, Antoine and Jacques Roussimoff are shown in the green-shuttered house where they grow up. The camera moves through the kitchen to focus on their brother’s chair — a custom model designed by the village carpenter. The audience also learns that André’s shoes were a size 22. He regularly flew to Japan, but his size prevented him from using the plane’s bathroom and he was forced to use a bucket. “André was as famous as Muhammad Ali, but Ali could put on a trench coat and a baseball cap,” to avoid being noticed, says wrestling historian David Shoemaker in an interview for the documentary. “André couldn’t hide.”
The Final Fight
When he wasn’t on the road or in the ring, the Frenchman resided in the little town of Ellerbe, North Carolina, where he had bought a ranch. The hills and the fields reminded him of his native region in France, and while away from the cameras and crowds the Giant was able to forget about his disease. André suffered from gigantism, and his continued, rapid growth put a severe strain on his heart and joints. He underwent numerous operations as a result, during which time he was unable to step back into the ring.
On March 29, 1987, André Roussimoff went head-to-head with Hulk Hogan at the Wrestlemania III event in Pontiac, Michigan. The “clash between Cain and Abel” was watched live by one million fans. The Giant could barely stand, and held onto the ropes to steady himself. His opponent pulled his punches. André submitted. It was his first defeat in 15 years — a record still unbeaten today — and the end of his professional career. He died six years later from a heart attack in his room at the Hôtel de la Trémoille in Paris.
“André didn’t have to put on a costume,” says American journalist Terry Todd, who wrote a profile of the Giant for the magazine Sports Illustrated in 1981. “He didn’t need to paint his face or wear strange robes. He was unique; he was a real person and a mythological creature at the same time.”
U.S. release: April 10
Director: Jason Hehir
Running time: 85 min