Remembering Andre the Giant's Larger Than Life Career and Complexities

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Remembering Andre the Giant's Larger Than Life Career and Complexities
Photo via WWE.com

Twenty-one years ago, as WWE was holding its press conference announcing WrestleMania IX in Las Vegas, 46-year-old Andre the Giant lay down in a hotel room on the other side of the Atlantic, spent from attending his father’s funeral.     

In those pre-Internet days, news traveled slowly.  So Bret “Hit Man” Hart, the WWE Champion at the time, remembers addressing the press, then working his way to New York—where the company was staging a special “Headlock on Hunger” card to raise money for Somali famine relief—before learning that the “Eighth Wonder of the World” never woke up.

“It seemed to come out of nowhere,” Hart says, “but maybe there was a God-given reason that, after traveling all over the world, he died there.”

The death came at a tumultuous time in the wrestling industry.  Within two months, both Dino Bravo and Kerry Von Erich would also be dead—Bravo from a series of gunshot wounds after becoming embroiled in a cigarette-smuggling case in his native Canada and Von Erich from suicide.  

“The number three comes to mind,” Hart says.  “At least, Andre died under the least controversial circumstances, at home, near his family.”

To his brothers in the wrestling fraternity, Andre’s early death was inevitable.  Indeed, he spoke about it himself.  

Born with acromegaly—a syndrome that causes the anterior pituitary gland to produce a surplus of human growth hormone—Andre had been in decline for several years, morphing from the large athlete who first appeared on wrestling cards in his teens to an oddity whose distorted facial characteristics occasionally frightened children.   

On the road, Andre was invariably the last person in the bar, leading some to theorize that he feared dying alone in his king-sized bed.

“I remember a couple of times being on the elevator,” says Paul “The Butcher” Vachon, who met Andre shortly after he relocated from France to North America.  “I want to go to bed, and Andre would grab me and take me out of the hotel.  He liked going to Chinatown because it was always open.  He never wanted to go to sleep.”

Although listed on wrestling programs as 7'4", Andre was likely shorter.  Nonetheless, he was a huge man—555 pounds at the time of his demise—with relatively average-sized legs below a massive torso and colossal head.  According his official website, Andre wore a size 24 shoe and had a wrist nearly a foot in circumference, the approximate size of a western lowland gorilla.

“He kept on growing,” Vachon says, “and that’s what killed him.”

 

MONSTER EIFFEL TOWER

Photo via WWE.com

Andre Rene Roussimoff was born a year after World War II ended in Grenoble, France—the “Capital of the Alps,” and a center point of the Resistance—to a family who traced their ancestry to Poland and Bulgaria.  

“He didn’t like to talk about his past,” recalls Gino Brito, who—like Vachon—promoted wrestling in Montreal in addition to headlining there.  “It took a long time before I found out he had a brother.  He liked to talk about what was going on in the wrestling business.  If I’d bring up history or wars, he’d say, ‘I don’t care about that.’

“Once we went from Montreal to Sudbury, Ontario, a drive of about seven-and-a-half hours.  He was in the back and I was in front.  I remember thinking, ‘Is he mad at me?  He hasn’t said two words.’  He was a closed book.”

If the legend is true, Andre’s grandfather was also a giant.  Either way, at age 12, Andre is said to have measured 6'3" and more than 200 pounds.  At 14, he reportedly left home, working for a factory that made hay balers, for a moving company and in carnivals.

Left on his own, Andre felt an affinity with society’s castaways, particularly prostitutes, who offered him life advice and friendship.  Brito remembers standing with Andre outside Montreal’s Ritz-Carlton as the wrestling star summoned over an overweight street walker: “He gave her $700.  He told me when he was on his own, these girls looked after him.”

During a visit to Paris, Vachon recalls hanging out with Andre in the Pigalle, the city’s red-light district.  “The business girls liked having him around.  He wasn’t a pimp, but they felt safe when he was there.”

His connection to the wrestling business appeared preordained.  The diversion had been part of French carnival culture since the 1830s.  In 1873, according to one account, the first masked wrestler appeared in Paris.  In North America, former French Olympic gold medalist Henri Deglane won a version of the world championship in 1931.

Andre began training for the business in Paris at age 17, quickly seizing the attention of promoters.  In 1968, he was sent on a tour of New Zealand and used the moniker "Monster Eiffel Tower."  

The same year, under his birth name, he began working for Joint Promotions in England, clashing with adversaries like Black Angus, a bearded Scot who’d later wrestle in the U.S., and Pat Roach, who’d parlay his wrestling fame into an extensive acting career that included the films A Clockwork Orange and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  As a rule, Andre won these clashes via knockout or TKO.

Exotic Adrian Street, the son of a Welsh coal miner who’d later appear in a number of U.S. promotions, doing a quasi-transvestite gimmick, was sitting across from Andre in the dressing room one evening, when 6'4" Prince Kumali walked through the door.  

“He stepped into Andre’s boots in his street shoes, and was kicking about the dressing room like he had two boxes on his feet,” Street says.  “And he was considered one of the giants of British wrestling.”

Street had seen foreigners like Ricki Starr and Billy Two Rivers enliven crowds in Leeds, Sheffield and Bristol.  Young Andre, on the other hand, induced a cooler reaction.  

“In Britain, unlike the States, they didn’t exaggerate your height,” Street explains.  “And Andre, in actual fact, was only 6'11".  He may have been still growing, and he didn’t have his big Afro yet.  But at less than seven feet, there wasn’t the ballyhoo that you’d see later.  They never made the most of him.”

 

“WE WANT TO USE YOUR GIANT”

Although a journeyman in North America, Quebec native Frank Valois was so popular in Europe that he made several movies in France.  It was there that he first spotted Andre, becoming his trainer, manager and traveling companion.  In 1971, he contacted Vachon, who’d opened Montreal’s Grand Prix Wrestling promotion with his brother, future WWE Hall of Famer Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon.

“He told me Andre was 7'4", and I couldn’t fathom that,” Vachon says.  “We were planning on building our own local guys.  But I thought, ‘Let’s give it a try.’

“We flew him first class from Paris, which cost quite a bit of money, because he couldn’t sit in an economy seat.  The name Andre Roussimoff didn’t mean anything to the French-speaking people in Quebec.  But there’d been a legendary French strongman called ‘Geant Ferre’ (the Iron Giant).  So the consensus was, ‘Let’s give him this Frenchman’s name.’”

When Andre arrived in Montreal, fans of Grand Prix Wrestling were told that Jean Ferre had been discovered in France not by Valois, but by “Flying Frenchman” Edouard Carpentier, a popular performer who told a fantastic tale about driving through the Alps to see the giant clearing an immense redwood from the road.  

“Andre was slim and a very good athlete then,” Vachon claims.  “In France, they worked almost a Mexican style with a lot of flying.  I didn’t want him to work the same way, but he could’ve done it.”

For months, the promotion built a storyline culminating with a “Match of the Century” against 6'6" Don Leo Jonathan at the Montreal Forum.  

“They worked like lightweights,” Vachon says.  “Despite his size, Jonathan could hit these high dropkicks on Andre.  Then, they started whipping each other into the corner, over and over.  The last time, when Andre went into the turnbuckles, the ring fell apart, and we had to stop the match.  But both guys were stronger than ever with the fans.”

Grand Prix was in the midst of a promotional war with Les As De La Lutte, the established All-Star Wrestling group run by Johnny Rougeau—whose nephews, Ray and Jacques Jr., aka The Mountie, would later appear in WWE—and the introduction of Andre had given the upstart the spark that it needed.

Previously, Grand Prix’s biggest house had topped off at $40,000.  For the Match of the Century, ringside admission was raised from $2 to $8.  Vachon’s goal was an $85,000 gate.  When he went to the box office after the show, the figure was just 15 dollars short, at $84,885.

With that type of success, Grand Prix opted to hold on to Andre.  Given his drawing ability, though, other promoters inquired about borrowing him, particularly for special shows.  As Vachon was planning the Montreal Forum card, he received a call from Dick “The Bruiser” Afflis about an event in Chicago:

“We want to use your giant.”

“He’s pretty busy.  What for?”

“We’re having a big show at Soldier Field.”

“Well, it’ll cost you.”

“How much?”

“$5,000 for him.  $2,000 for his opponent.”

Bruiser said that he’d provide the opponent.  But Vachon feared that “The World’s Most Dangerous Man” might have designs of getting into the ring with Andre and double-crossing him.  As a result, Vachon insisted on traveling to Chicago and wrestling Andre himself.

Bruiser was very anxious to include Andre on the card that he acquiesced.  But he still had another question: “How do you say Jean Ferre in English?  Does this kid have a real name?”

“Andre Roussimoff.”

“Well, when we book him, he’ll be Andre the Giant.”

Eventually, the one-on-one contest was changed to a handicap match: Andre vs. Vachon and Larry “The Ax” Hennig—father of future WWE Intercontinental Champion Curt “Mr. Perfect” Hennig and grandfather of current star Curtis Axel.  

As the villains stood together in their corner, Hennig eyed the special attraction, and muttered, “Jesus Christ.  What are we going to do with him?”

“I bet you I can bodyslam him,” Vachon boasted.

“You’re on.”

The two moved to the center of the ring for the referee’s instructions.  There, Vachon looked up at Andre and spoke to him in French: “I just bet Larry that I could bodyslam you.”

Andre smiled his wide, gummy grin.  “OK, Boss.”

Notes Vachon, “It’s impossible to slam anybody if he doesn’t let you.  When I grabbed Andre, he went up for me.  Everyone made a big deal out of Hulk Hogan slamming Andre (at WrestleMania III).  But Andre had let a couple of guys bodyslam him.  If he liked you, it wasn’t a problem.”

Leo Burke, a member of a French-speaking wrestling family from New Brunswick, similarly describes Andre as being generous in the ring.  “When you were his friend, he couldn’t do enough for you,” he says, referring to Andre’s willingness to “sell,” or make his opponent’s moves look potent.  

“But, look, I’m 220 pounds.  I can’t outpower him.  So I’d hit him with brass knuckles to make it seem believable. When you punched Andre, he really wanted you to lay it in.  Guys were scared to do that because they didn’t want to get Andre mad.”

Burke also enjoyed teaming with Andre, particularly in territories populated with legitimate tough guys with reputations for testing newcomers between the ropes.

 “Nobody ever tried anything with Andre,” says Burke.  “And nobody took liberties with you if you were his tag team partner.  It was too much of a risk.”

 

FALSE FINISH

Photo via WWE.com

Two decades after his death, there are just as many drinking stories about Andre as there are about his altercations in the ring.  Folklore has him consuming 7,000 calories in alcohol a day, consuming 72 double shots of vodka in a sitting, and passing out in a hotel lobby after finishing 119 beers.  Unable to move the sleeping giant up to his room, the tale continues, Andre’s companions had no choice but to disguise him as a piece of furniture, concealing him with a piano cover.

Rarely did Andre ever allow a friend to pick up the tab—or exit the bar.  “When he started buying drinks,” Burke says, “you forgot what time it was or what town you were in.  It was kind of hard to refuse Andre.”

Multiple-time National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) Champion Harley Race considered himself an equally prolific imbiber.  One night in Regina, Saskatchewan, Harley challenged Andre to a drinking contest. Harley—who could spend several nights in a row working exhausting time-limit matches against a variety of opponents in different cities—understood the principles of endurance and seemed to be keeping pace with the giant.  Finally, Andre appeared so depleted that he lay his head on the table and shut his eyes.

Although wobbly, Race began to rise from his seat and raise his arms.  That’s when he noticed Andre lifting his head from the polished wood.

“False finish,” Andre declared in his deep French accent, winking at the cheering horde of wrestlers.

On another journey, this one through the windy Gaspe Peninsula in eastern Quebec, Brito peeked in his van’s rearview mirror and observed Andre sipping from a bottle in the back, beneath the vehicle’s bubble top.

“Why do you abuse yourself?” Brito asked with genuine concern.  “Do you really have to drink three cases of beer and two bottles of Crown Royal?”

“Who cares?” Andre answered.  “In a few more years, I’ll be gone anyway.”

 

THE WORLD’S MOST SENSATIONAL EXOTIC ENTERTAINER

Starting in 1976, Andre traveled to Calgary every summer to appear in the Stampede Week parade and wrestle on the regional promotion’s biggest show of the year.  

“Whenever Andre came in, my father rented the bigger building,” says Bret Hart, whose father Stu ran the Stampede Wrestling territory.  “I remember watching him hang out with (hockey great) Bobby Hull, some rodeo champion and Babette Bardot.”

Bardot, who claimed to be a distant cousin of Brigitte Bardot, was the star of two Russ Meyer films, Common Law Cabin and Mondo Topless, with a 44-inch bust that enabled her to bill herself as “The World’s Most Sensational Exotic Entertainer.”  

Earlier in the decade, Stu had christened her “Miss Stampede Wrestling,” and he invited her kids to romp on the family’s property while she did her lunchtime act at Calgary’s Majestic Inn.  During Stampede Week, she rode on the wrestlers’ float.

“She’d do this show where she’d sing these French love songs, then throw a garter,” Hart says.  “The first time I saw her, I was 14, and I still have that garter now.”

When Andre was in town, he made it a point to catch as many of her performances as possible and position himself in the front row.  After the matches, Bardot was often beside Andre as he ordered rounds of drinks.  

“She wasn’t on his arm,” Hart says, “but she’d be next to him, keeping him company. And that’s how he liked it, having that cute girl who sang the French love songs with him.”

At that stage of his career, Andre was cheerful when fans interrupted his conversations and asked for autographs and photos.  

“After a while, he got tired of being gawked at,” Hart maintains.  “I saw old ladies curse him out for not signing an autograph for one of their grandchildren, and he’d just sit there and drink his beer until one of the other wrestlers intercepted. It was hard being a 7'4" giant.”

When Adrian Street ran into the leviathan in 1983—in the Memphis-based wrestling territory—Andre had changed.  “At that particular time, he was quite surly,” Street says.  “There were only certain wrestlers that he would speak to.  A lot of the boys wanted to take pictures with him, but he wouldn’t do it. Because they’d make copies of those pictures and sell them to the fans.”

Street sympathized with Andre’s attitude: “He was a hell of a nice guy when he wanted to be.  I respect people who let you know where you are with them.  Andre didn’t pretend.  If he didn’t like you—for whatever the reason—he’d ignore you.”

 

A PLACE FOR A GIANT TO STAY

Photo via WWE.com

From the moment he’d left France, Andre appeared most comfortable in Montreal, even buying into a promotion there, Les Etoiles De La Lutte—The Stars of Wrestling—in 1980 with Brito and Valois.  

“I’ll tell you why he put in the money,” Brito says.  “Frank Valois wanted the business, and Andre was grateful to him for bringing him to Canada. I don’t remember Andre being involved with any promotional decisions. He was more the backer.  And I welcomed it.  Because it guaranteed that we’d have Andre on our shows, and that meant we’d draw.”

The territory extended 1,300 miles from Thunder Bay, Ontario to Edmundston, New Brunswick, on the border of Maine.  “He’d never go to those towns if he didn’t own the promotion,” Brito points out.  “But he loved the French Canadian culture and stayed in the best places.  He seemed really happy when he was here.”

For a period, he also owned a Montreal restaurant but appeared indifferent to the hospitality trade.  “He didn’t take care of it,” Brito says.  “He wouldn’t check on the receipts.  He never made a profit from that place.  But he could go there and drink all the booze he wanted.  You could tell he didn’t give a damn about it.”

He appeared far more passionate about his 46-acre ranch in the small town of Ellerbe, N.C., 90 miles southwest of Raleigh.  An oak tree grew through the middle of his 3,500-foot home, and Andre rode around the property on a Honda three-wheeler, observing his Texas Longhorn cattle as his Rhodesian Ridgebacks chased after him, then dove into the pond to swim.

“He fixed it up with high ceilings and a big recliner,” says Brito, “A place for a giant to live.”

Relaxing in the Jacuzzi or in front of the rock fireplace, Andre enjoyed the type of normalcy that evaded him in the rest of world.  He was so comfortable on the ranch that he occasionally socialized with his neighbors, turning up at Lions Club events.  Once, after venturing to the hardware store to purchase an extra-large chainsaw, he left the clerk a $100 tip.

 

ANDRE CAN FIRE YOU

Photo via WWE.com

As WWE—then known as the World Wrestling Federation—expanded into an international conglomerate, the best wrestlers from the various territories found themselves joining the organization and encountering Andre in the dressing room.

On the blackboard —generally used to list the night’s matches—Bret Hart would draw cartoons of his fellow athletes in a variety of scenarios.  Among his favorite targets: Chief Jay Strongbow, a grouchy, retired star who worked behind the scenes with the talent.  

“Princess Tomah was this old, Native American wrestler from Phoenix who’d partied with everybody since the 1960s,” Hart says.  “So I’d draw these massive orgies with Princess Tomah and Chief Jay Strongbow in the middle of them.  When Andre would look at the board, he’d laugh so much he’d have tears in his eyes.

“And that’s why I did it.  I did it for Andre.”

In 1984, the Freebirds—Michael Hayes, Buddy Roberts and Terry Gordy—were recruited by the company, largely because they fit into the rock ’n’ roll image owner Vince McMahon was trying to cultivate.  “One time, the Freebirds were so drunk, they couldn’t get out of the plane,” Hart claims. “They got to the building at 9 or 9:30, in the middle of a show, and Andre was pissed off by their lack of professionalism.  While they were getting dressed, he told them, ‘You guys are fired.’”

When the Freebirds protested that Andre was ineligible to make personnel decisions, he allegedly countered, “We’ll see tomorrow if you’re gone or I’m gone.”

“The next day,” Hart continues, “the Freebirds were gone.  So I guess Andre could fire you.”

On another occasion, Bam Bam Bigelow was bragging about money, even displaying a $15,000 check he’d received after wrestling Hulk Hogan.  “Andre got in the ring with him, kicked him around and spit on his head,” Hart says.  “His attitude needed tweaking, and Andre was a law officer in the dressing room.”

To Andre, the dressing room was a sacred place where the mysteries of the business should be exposed only to those appearing on the card.  When Curt Hennig joined the company, for instance, he invited Scott Hall—his tag team partner in the rival American Wrestling Association (AWA)—backstage.  Hall was hoping to meet Vince McMahon and procure a job.  Instead, he ran into Andre.

“My one Andre experience was brief and to the point,” Hall says.  “I walked into the locker room, and he yelled, ‘You…out!’  My first thought was, ‘What’s the quickest way out of here?’”

Despite the authority he commanded, the other wrestlers noticed that Andre’s health was declining.  His spine was weakening, his movements were labored and he was forced to wear a back brace under his unitard.  Yet his aura remained intact.

Ron Hutchinson—who’d later train Edge, Christian, Trish Stratus, Gail Kim and Beth Phoenix—was working as a “jobber” in WWE in the 1980s, losing to more established talent on television.  In one encounter, he was double-teamed by King Kong Bundy and Big John Studd before Andre made the save.

“He was hurting at the time,” Hutchinson recounts.  “It would be a stretch to call it a ‘run-in.’  But this was Andre.  No matter how small our interaction was, all I could think was, ‘This is awesome.’”

 

THE COLOSSUS OF THE COLISEUM

The match for which Andre is best remembered took place at WrestleMania III, in front of what WWE proclaimed to be an indoor attendance record of 93,173.  Although Andre and his opponent, Hulk Hogan, had wrestled earlier in the decade, WWE omitted this portion of history, depicting the pair as perennial close friends and allies.  

Then, in 1987, Andre turned evil.  

The match was built around the notion that no one had ever bodyslammed Andre before.  When Hogan attempted this feat early in the confrontation, his legs appeared to buckle under his opponent’s bulk.

Andre fell on top of the champ, and referee Joey Marella—the son of WWE legend Gorilla Monsoon—slapped the mat three times, even though Hogan’s shoulder was up at two.  Marella immediately shook his head from side to side, indicating that he’d made a mistake.

Andre might have been limited, but he was seasoned and knew how to keep the fans in the match.

Toward the end of the battle, Hogan hit Andre with a clothesline.  The giant left his feet for the first time in the bout, enabling Hogan to scoop him up and—as cameras flashed—successfully slam him onto the mat before retaining the title with a leg drop.

There’d been better matches before—including the classic between Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat and Randy “Macho Man” Savage earlier on the card—but Hogan and Andre captivated both the public and the wrestling community.  

“The story I heard was that, as Hogan and Andre were each being handed a check for $600,000, Vince McMahon said, ‘Tear them up,’” Vachon says.  “Then, he gave each of them a million.”

The payoff notwithstanding, the loss did nothing to diminish Andre.  As WWE broadened its base outside North America, his presence on a card was as coveted as ever.

In 1989, Bret Hart came directly from the airport to an arena in Milan, Italy to see his name next to Andre’s on the board.  “I thought, I’m a technical wrestler.  Why am I working with Andre?’” he admits.  “I went up to him backstage, and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’

“We get out there, and he called, ‘Elbow drop.  I’ll tell you when.’  We went 10 minutes, and he sold for me, tied himself up in the ropes, made me look like a contender.  At one point, we did the spot where he grabbed the ropes and stood on my chest.  I sucked in my breath to brace myself.  But it was like there was a car on my chest.  I felt my life leaving my body.  He could have killed you, if he wanted to.

“When Andre finally hit his elbow drop, I looked up and I thought a piano was falling down on me.  But he was so light, it was like a feather.   He took care of me.  For years, I’d joke that my shoulder was a mile up in the air, and he didn’t really win.”

 

A PEACEFUL GOODBYE

Photo via WWE.com

Each time he saw his old business partner, Gino Brito sensed that the legacy of Andre the Giant was coming to an end.  “He knew that, eventually, something would give out,” Brito says.  “His legs were swelling up like crazy.  I don’t know if he had gout or diabetes.  His forehead was thickening.  He was uncomfortable.  He didn’t like for anyone to see him with a cane, but just to walk to the ring was painful.”

Andre was not one for providing medical updates.  “He didn’t go to the doctor,” Brito says.  “He didn’t go to the dentist.  He said, ‘I’ll just keep going, then I’ll drop dead.’”

The wrestling star’s father had been ill, and—after being away for so long—Andre decided to return to France and spend time with him.  

“The day he buried his father was the day he died,” Vachon reflects. “He led a turbulent life, but died peacefully.”

Officially, Andre suffered a cardiac complication related to his acromegaly.   

“He knew he was a giant, and he wasn’t going to live long, but I honestly think wrestling prolonged his life,” says Street.  “If you want to live, you have to move.  And wrestling provided Andre with exercise and cardio.

“I think wrestling owes a lot to Andre, but perhaps not as much as Andre owed to wrestling.”

For reasons Andre never made clear, he’d asked to be cremated within 48 hours . A decision was made to do this in the United States, but it was difficult to find the cargo space for his unusually large casket.

The story about his body being chopped up and inserted into a smaller box is a wrestling legend, on par with Geant Ferre, the Iron Giant of French lore.  When the big coffin finally arrived on American shores, it could not fit into a standard hearse.  Eventually, though, another vehicle was found, and Andre’s corpse was transported to a crematorium.  The final statistic attributed to Andre: 17 pounds—the weight of his ashes.  

With his wishes fulfilled, wrestling friends and neighbors gathered on Andre’s ranch, as its caretaker—former referee Frenchy Bernard—spread the remains on horseback.

“As the years go by, the legend becomes greater,” notes Hutchinson.  “He’s been gone 21 years—God bless his soul—and the stories get more exaggerated.  In 20 more years, he’ll be remembered as being eight feet tall.”

Still, Butcher Vachon cares little about the myths surrounding Andre the Giant, some of which the Vachon Brothers perpetuated themselves.  Instead, he thinks of Andre Roussimoff, a man who—separated from his home country and family—embraced his brothers of the mat with a kind, gregarious spirit.

“I was happy to be his friend,” Vachon says.  “His heart was as big as his body.  He was a good guy.”

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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