Overexaggeration is what makes professional wrestling the big-stage, fist-fight fantasy that it is, but for Andre the Giant – one of the niche business’ greatest legends – the allure was in reality. Jason Hehir’s HBO documentary Andre the Giant, which premiered on HBO on Tuesday night, explores the real-life mystique, power and pain that surrounded one of the scripted sports’ most iconic star, featuring interviews with pro wrestling legends Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair and Vince McMahon, Hollywood actors Billy Crystal and Robin Wright, as well as his family and friends.
Andre the Giant (real name Andre Roussimoff) defined what it meant to be a “giant” in the world of pro wrestling during the 1970s and Eighties, continuously growing throughout his life as a result of acromegaly – a form of gigantism which enlarges a person’s extremities and face. Roussimoff’s height was billed at 7-foot-4 and he reportedly weighed 520 pounds – though professional wrestling promoters often stretch the truth to build hype around their performers. Roussimoff’s billing as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” however, was one of the few that lived up to the fabricated hype and transcended pro wrestling to become a household name with movie roles and frequent appearances on televised newscasts around the country.
“Before there was CGI, there was only Andre the Giant,” longtime pro wrestling historian David Shoemaker explains in the film, trying to put the attention surrounding the once-in-a-lifetime performer into perspective. The 85-minute doc sheds new light on the fabled French wrestler’s life and career, while exploring the effect he had on how professional wrestling took shape in the 1980s. Here’s 10 takeaways from the documentary.
Andre didn’t start growing at a rapid pace until the age of 15.
Hehir sets the stage for the Giant’s mind-blowing teenage transformation, showing baby pictures of Andre when he was still a normal size for a child his age. “He was a beautiful baby,” Antoine Roussimoff, Andre’s older brother, points out early in the doc. “He was normal.” But at 15, that all changed. Andre’s other brother Jacques remembers their mother becoming concerned that he would never stop growing – a reality Hehir’s documentary goes on to show both perpetuated the myth and plagued the man.
Roussimoff denied treatment for his condition throughout his career so that his appearance wasn’t altered.
In one telling moment in the film, Dr. Harris Yett, who once treated Andre for a broken ankle gives a medical estimation on Andre’s size – a unique insight on a man who was only previously presented through the bent lens of wrestling promoters. “His ankle bones were as large as a normal man’s knee bones,” Yett says. The doctor also said that Andre’s condition was treatable, but the no-nonsense performer refused treatment because it would mean interfering with the physical features on which he built his career. Because of refusing medical treatment for his condition, Andre’s discomfort grew worse throughout his career and, as Andre’s Princess Bride co-star Cary Elwes believes, it also led to the wrestler’s well-documented drinking: “He drank because he was in pain.”
Andre transcended pro wrestling’s territorial format, becoming one of the first national wrestling stars.
Early on, Hehir spends a few minutes explaining pro wrestling’s territorial history to help convey Andre’s uniquely widespread popularity. In it, former wrestler Jerry Lawler and wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer break down how wrestlers often worked in regions for specific promoters, but Andre was different. Lawler estimated there were as many as 32 different North American territories at the time French-born Roussimoff arrived from Europe. Andre would spend just under two months performing on different shows in each region before moving on to the next. “There was nobody else in the business at that time where you could say, ‘Hey, let me put this guy on your card and you’ll have an automatic sellout,” Lawler says. But that also meant Andre always had to be on the move.
Fan excitement surrounding Andre the Giant in North America was initially quick to fade.
Crowds would line up around the building to see Roussimoff, but once they saw the giant in person, there often wasn’t a reason for them to come back. With the help of Vince McMahon Sr., Andre was booked to perform in brief stints across all the North American pro wrestling regions at the time. By doing this, Andre remained a rare attraction throughout the country and became one of the first pro wrestlers to gain national – and international – fame as word spread.
Andre helped grow his popularity through local news appearances.
Andre is shown throughout the documentary appearing on television news programs, which he often did to help become a household name in the Seventies and Eighties. Whether he was shaking hands with journalists wincing in pain, lifting 2,000-pound weights, or letting interviewers try on his gigantic clothing, when the camera was on Andre, he knew how to sell himself to fans. At one point, Hogan even credits Andre with being the first to truly understand how to monetize himself as a pro wrestler. Andre confirms this in so many words throughout the film, at one point explaining in a clip from 60 Minutes that he uses “what God gave me to make a living.”
His farts were dangerous – literally.
Roussimoff had a famously difficult time traveling from city-to-city, whether it was finding a car to fit in or needing an entire row of seats just to sit down on an airplane. Traveling also meant being in close quarters with others, which was often bad news for those sitting near the giant, according to his wrestling counterparts. “When he passed gas, it was an event,” McMahon says, laughing during one of the documentary’s most light-hearted scenes. Former wrestling personality Gene Okerlund remembers how Andre would always lift his left leg before letting one rip, which became a sort of trademark warning for those close to him. Hehir briefly shows a string of mouth noises his interviewees all made to explain the depth of Andre’s flatulent roar and Hogan, who smiles his way through the endearing memory, tells a story about how Andre once farted so badly on an airplane that he had the pilots in a frantic state of emergency while fighting for air.
Andre the Giant hated being shown up.
Andre was always supposed to look and act like the bigger force, Hehir’s interviewees explain throughout the film. Lawler, McMahon and Hogan all recount Andre’s issues had with wrestlers like “Macho Man” Randy Savage and fellow big man Big John Studd. At times, Studd angered the French giant by doing things only Andre should’ve done, like entering the ring by stepping over the top rope. “If he wanted to show you who was the boss, it was very easy for him to do that,” says McMahon, recalling a time when Studd hurriedly came back to the locker room after a tense match against Andre, grabbing his stuff and leaving. When McMahon asked him where he was going, Studd said he had to get out of there quickly: “He’s going to kill me!”
Andre the Giant vs. Hulk Hogan was decided on the fly.
The documentary’s climax largely surrounds Andre the Giant’s famous match against Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania III – then the largest audience to ever witness a pro wrestling show (93, 173) – featuring the most iconic move in wrestling history: Hogan body-slamming Andre. While McMahon reveals he had to convince Andre to return to the WWF for the 1987 event – despite Roussimoff’s worsening acromegaly condition and that the match almost never happened – Hogan goes into detail about how the match itself was up in the air until it was actually happening.
Hogan wrote the script for the match the night before WrestleMania at a hotel in Detroit, but Andre didn’t confirm with either Hulk or Vince McMahon that he would go along with the plan for him to lose to Hogan. Hulk describes the consuming nervousness he had going into the match while describing the paralleled coolness Andre had prior to walking out in front of nearly 100,000 people. It’s one of the most telling moments in the documentary – here was Andre, about to create one of the most replayed moments in wrestling history, and he was as calm and confident as can be. Hogan recalls the enormous relief he had as he began to realize mid-match that Andre was following the script they wrote out the night before. As the music swells, Hogan verbally replays the final, historic moment in Andre’s voice calling out the moves: “Slaaaam! Leg drop!”
Andre’s drinking – and the stories surrounding it – are just as mythological as the man, himself.
“He enjoyed performing, but he enjoyed the party afterwards,” McMahon jokes. Hehir’s cast of ex-wrestling characters all have their stories about how much Andre could drink – Flair says Andre once drank 106 beers in one night, Lawler says the minimum he’d ever drink was 24, while Okerlund claims he’d have a case of wine just to start off the day. Shoemaker goes as far as to say Andre was “the greatest drinker that ever lived.” The stories surrounding Andre the Giant are almost as folkloric as the man, the film continuously points out. McMahon, who even helped perpetuate the legend that Andre had over 80 teeth shaped in rows like a shark, admitted it’s all part of the fun surrounding Andre’s legend: “You could say anything about Andre and you’d believe it.”
The performer’s life was perpetually uncomfortable and he was sensitive to its cruelties
There was never anything big enough for Andre, Hogan says during a particularly emotional scene showing pictures of Andre squeezing into cars and taking up a whole row of seats on a plane. Andre often experienced embarrassing situations, like having to pee in a bucket on planes because he couldn’t fit in the bathroom or having onlookers yell after him and call him names when he’d walk in public. “He would cry,” Okerlund remembers. “You never think a guy like that would cry, but he would cry.”
In the movie’s most heartbreaking moment, Hehir shows a clip of Andre trying to explain the difficulties he faced every day of his life. “It’s difficult everywhere I go,” says Andre, in a deep, but drained, voice. “They don’t have anything for big people. They’ve got everything for blind people, for crippled people, for some other people but not for big people. So, we have to fit in there and it’s not too easy all the time.”
No matter how much he would tell friends and family that he wished he was a normal size, Andre the Giant’s biggest curse and blessing were his growth condition. With a larger than life personality that was only overshadowed by his larger-than-usual body, this documentary not only explores the powerful impact Roussimoff had on the world of professional wrestling and the individuals he worked with throughout his career, but also the wonder he created every time he stepped into a room.
“Andre never needed costuming – he never needed to paint his face or wear strange robes. He was absolutely unique,” journalist Terry Todd says of the man who was famously known as “the Eighth Wonder of the World” and wrestled over 5,000 matches for millions of awe-struck fans throughout his career. “He was a figure of the imagination come to life.”