HBO’s documentary on the life of professional wrestler André the Giant is a surprisingly morose affair. By the end, a number of men, some who profited very well from André's exertions, shed tears over his lonesome death. He lived fast and died before age fifty. He became addicted to performing, wrestling far beyond his body’s ability to bear the stress. Our final sense is of a spent husk dying alone in a well-appointed hotel room. It’s hard to say what those who aren't wrestling fans will see in the film, especially when it detours into detailed descriptions of the sound of André's farts. Its nostalgia for the faded days of wrestling’s territory system is quite specific to fans born before the eighties.
Still, André the Giant is unarguably a fascinating figure, part character from fantasy and part evidence of a body grown horribly out of control as a result of acromegaly. An opening voiceover describes him as a "living manifestation of our childhood dreams," but for some, he undoubtedly evoked nightmares. Born André Roussimoff in rural France, he wanted off his family’s farm at an early age. He turned to professional wrestling. By his early twenties, he was building a career that would make him a very wealthy man. “That’s why I’m traveling all over the world,” he says in archival footage. “I want to make everyone have the chance to see a giant.” His travel brought him great fame in his life, a life he clearly understood to be more time-limited than others, which he intended to fill with as much travel, sex, food, and alcohol as he could.
Directed by Jason Hehir and produced by Bill Simmons, André’s story gets the star treatment. Created with the cooperation of World Wrestling Entertainment and the Roussimoff family, the filmmakers had their pick of the best wrestling footage available. They also had access to what must have been one fantastic address book. Besides several recognizable faces from eighties wrestling, the film features interviews with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rob Reiner, Billy Crystal, and Robin Wright.
HBO catalogs this along with its other sports documentaries, which may strike some as strange. The film doesn’t wade into the debate over whether it’s proper to refer to wresting as a sport, though in his interview, Hulk Hogan describes it as being a job for entertainers, not tough guys. I suspect he meant that success in the ring wasn’t determined by physical prowess. In fact, intentionally injuring an opponent would have led to a wrestler losing his job or getting injured by another wrestler in retaliation. What made someone successful in professional wrestling, then and now, is a willingness to do exactly what the promoters said.
In that regard, André had it easier than most. When a promoter hired him, it was with the knowledge that the one thing André would almost never do is lose a match. His gimmick was based on his size and invincibility. At most, he might “sell,” wrestling-speak for responding to your opponent’s twists and punches with shows of pain and anguish. When André fell to a knee in the ring as the result of an opponent’s chop or kick, it meant something significant was happening.
He had it easier, too, because he was a performer the fans always wanted to see. He received top billing as a matter of course, and he was one of only a few wrestlers who could travel the world as an attraction. Most were lucky to have fame in specific cities, which they would work for years. André had the exact opposite arrangement; if he stayed in one place too long, his unique appeal wore thin. To keep his act new, he had to travel.
As a result, he spent his life in automobiles and on planes, packed into seats designed for people significantly smaller than him or traveling in a custom-built trailer stocked with alcohol for long trips. On flights, he was forced to defecate into a bucket in the back of the plane. “It had to be an uncomfortable life,” says wrestler Jerry Lawler.
André never married and was never close to his daughter. But in his career, he was wildly successful, and once he got moving, he never stopped. He was wrestling’s highest-paid performer during a time when wrestlers could make significant amounts of money. When a doctor suggested that treatment might be available to halt the effects of his acromegaly, André refused it, concerned it might negatively affect his appeal. His course in life, he seemed to think, had been chosen for him, and he was going to see it through.
He gained his broadest fame as a result of his role in The Princess Bride, almost certainly the reason he is still so well-remembered. Author William Goldman adapted the character of Fezzik with André specifically in mind. Who else could have even physically fit the role? “Before CGI,” says writer David Shoemaker, “there was André the Giant.” However, suffering from severe back and knee pain, he was unable to film the fight scenes with Cary Elwes or bear any weight in his arms. He began drinking at nine a.m. to help manage the pain. He was in his late thirties.
The documentary’s climax is André’s performance with Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania 3 in 1987. Wrestlemania 3 was shaped by WWE owner Vince McMahon as an overwhelming spectacle intended to fill the Pontiac Silverdome. André had already expressed to McMahon that he was done—with wresting and with living, as McMahon understood him. There were seats to be filled, though, and André was convinced to get into the ring.
How much convincing it took is not clear. He had consented to extensive back surgery after filming The Princess Bride, which had left him mostly unable to walk without a cane. Still, several minutes are spent detailing the planning of the match and Hogan’s concern that André would refuse to “put him over,” or lose. It’s hard to take that concern seriously when Hogan himself says André “probably should not have been in the ring.”
What then, are the ascending strings on the soundtrack intended to signify as they run behind footage of the match? The feeling of the accountants as they counted the gate receipts? The feeling of relief when everyone realized André would indeed follow the script, take the loss, and "do the job?" It all leaves you with the image of a man whose body was failing in front of a national audience but who was never encouraged to walk away. “When his career was over,” Vince McMahon says, “he had no value to himself.”
It’s notable that André almost never speaks in the film, other than in footage from wrestling broadcasts. In the one segment where he is out of his wrestling persona, he’s dressed as Fezzik on the set of The Princess Bride. He’s lamenting the lack of accommodation made for large people, and his directness is disarming in a way that little else in the film is. The scene is over almost before you can process it.
André died at age forty-six, six years after his Wrestlemania 3 match. Though he would appear in wrestling matches until only months before his death, he was physically unable to perform beyond the sparest of moves. His acromegaly and hard living had caused his body to exceed its ability to support itself. The film closes with a young André telling an interviewer, “I don’t want to be champion. I just want to be André the Giant.”
The final tragedy of his life, it turns out, is that he was never able to live any other way.