As a kid growing up during the 1980s, the three most important sporting events of my youth were:
That last moment, which rocked my 10-year-old brain (along with those of millions of other wrestling fans), is the obvious centerpiece of Andre the Giant, Jason Hehir’s celebratory and poignant documentary about the larger-than-life titan, which premieres April 10 on HBO.
Though it speaks volumes about the man who became arguably the most beloved personality in the industry’s history, Andre’s showdown against Hogan at 1987’s Wrestlemania III was merely the culmination of a long and storied career that was preordained by his monumental size and strength, and predicated on his peerless charisma, good humor and generosity. There was, quite literally, no one like him—a fact still true today, 25 years after his untimely passing of a heart attack on January 27, 1993.
Born Andre Rene Roussimoff in the small town of Molien, France, in 1946, Andre began growing at an alarming rate by age 15 courtesy of gigantism, which later developed into acromegaly—a condition which further distorted and enlarged his facial features, feet and hands. In early black-and-white footage, Andre the Giant reveals its subject as a slender 300-pound teen prone to athletic in-ring feats. However, by the time he made a splash on the 1970s regional wrestling circuit—first in Montreal, and then in the American Midwest—he was closer to the gargantuan figure that most now remember. Standing over 7-feet tall, and weighing close to 500 pounds, he was a shaggy-haired behemoth who quickly earned his stage moniker “Andre the Giant,” as well as his accompanying nickname: “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”
“He was a living manifestation of our childhood dreams,” opines journalist Terry Todd, while wrestling historian David Shoemaker puts it more bluntly: “He was a God.” Vince McMahon Sr., who ran the coveted Northeast region of the business during that era, quickly recognized Andre’s unrivaled appeal and started regularly booking him, as well as leasing him out to other territories. As “Mean” Gene Okerlund remembers, Andre wasn’t the most articulate of performers in interviews, but he was immensely expressive in the ring, and Hehir’s wealth of clips of the Giant rampaging through opponents in venues both big and small—often in two-against-one bouts, or in Battle Royales, which provided opportunities to see him manhandle heavyweights like they were children—ably authenticates his awe-inspiring presence and power.
Andre was such a box-office draw, in fact, that he was often used sparingly in order to maintain his novelty. Nonetheless, once Vince McMahon Jr. consolidated wrestling’s numerous regional outfits to create the modern-era WWE—replete with a coast-to-coast cable-TV platform to promote it—Andre became one of the company’s immediate nationwide stars. Even with the stratospheric popularity of Hulk Hogan, Andre was simply an incomparable sight. And he was prone to take his fury out on colleagues who didn’t give him the proper respect. As Hogan humorously remembers (replete with spot-on vocal impersonations), targets of Andre’s wrath included Randy “Macho Man” Savage, The Iron Sheik, and Big John Studd, whose unfortunate position on Andre’s bad side led to near-death beatings in the squared circle.
Executive produced by Bill Simmons, and sharply directed by Hehir, Andre the Giant doesn’t have to work hard to mythologize the grappler. With wide-eyed wonder, numerous commenters (including Andre’s The Princess Bride co-star Robin Wright) recall the size of his hands, which were big enough to cover the top half of a person’s skull. His legendary drinking was so prolific that Ric Flair claims to have once seen him down 106 beers in a single night. His strength was such that, out to dinner with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Andre lifted the seven-time Mr. Olympia from his chair and placed him atop an armoire. And though there’s no mention of arguably the most notorious story in Andre lore, his appeal with women was considerable, and aptly summed up by Flair: “He wears a size 24 ring, baby—what can I tell you? And he’s wearing size 24 shoes—what else do you want to know?”
As the ‘80s wore on, Andre’s body began to break down; speaking about him with reverence and empathy, Rob Reiner, Billy Crystal, Cary Elwes and Wright all remember Andre needing help just to perform the most basic physical stunts in The Princess Bride. He was, simply put, too big for his own good. Eventually, then, Andre the Giant becomes something of a tragedy—not because Andre didn’t achieve his dreams, help elevate an industry to newfound heights, or inspire generations, but because his dedication to his craft was so all-consuming that it dissuaded him from seeking treatment that might have prolonged his life. Back and knee surgeries did their part in alleviating some of the pain (as did his consummate boozing), allowing him to soldier on in matches that were increasingly defined by his immobility. Yet they were merely stop-gap measures aimed at temporarily delaying the inevitable.
More than his towering enormity, his big smile, his sense of humor (including his fondness for flatulence), or his headstrong lack of self-preservation, what resonates most movingly throughout Andre the Giant is the Giant’s bigheartedness. Despite never being able to hide from the public eye (how could he?), and forced to cope with a world not designed for someone his size, Andre was a gentle and sensitive soul, as well as a charitable man both in and out of the ring. Always willing to (per Jerry “The King” Lawler) “sell for [his] opponent,” Andre was an entertainer who consistently had his partner’s best interests at heart—a fact finally underlined by his aforementioned Wrestlemania III showdown against Hulk Hogan in front of a record 93,173 fans at the Pontiac Silverdome. Knowing full well that his time was coming to a close, Andre—having kept Hogan in the dark about how the match would end—chose to finally let another icon defeat him, so that the sport he helped build could continue to grow long after he was gone.
It was arguably his most triumphant moment—an act of selflessness that epitomized how he lived his life. And it was proof that, even in defeat, no one could ever truly share his spotlight.