Andre the Giant's tragic real-life story

During the 1980s, World Wrestling Entertainment was a grab-tastic slam-stravaganza crammed with classic characters and stellar storylines. Adults and kids alike tuned in to see toon-like humans make mat magic happen. Barbers became barbarous beefcakes, macho savages savagely hit men, and hit men excellently executed submission holds. The wrestling world revolved around a maniacal hulk, but Andre the Giant was the Atlas holding it up.

Tall and titanic, the 500-plus-pound Andre dwarfed enormous athletes like an iceberg. As Sports Illustrated illustrated, one of his gargantuan hands could engulf a 12-ounce beer can, and his wrists were thicker than most men's ankles. So when Andre vowed to "squeeze and squeeze and squeeze" Hulk Hogan until the heavyweight championship belt "fell off [his] waist," fans had to wonder how many prayers and vitamins it would take to keep Hulkamania standing, let alone running wild. The giant looked like he could clobber wrestling's ultimate warrior handily.

Andre the Giant dominated wrestling for decades and made a big splash on the big screen. The legendary performer boasted a massive body of work and masses of grateful fans, but thanks to a disorder called acromegaly he perpetually gained body mass and battled debilitating health problems. Meanwhile, the strain of fame maimed him mentally. People like to say "No pain, no gain," but Andre painfully proved that saying true.

The measurement of a man

By every mentionable measure Andre the Giant was a whole lot of man. Besides size he possessed unfathomable strength and a voice that sounded deeper than the ocean. The name Andre derives from a Greek adjective that means "manly" or "masculine." He had a rugged upbringing on a farm in the French Alps. Even as a bouncing baby mountain Andre manifested manliness. Born Andre Roussimoff in 1946, the little giant made a big impression on his parents. According to Sports Illustrated, when Andre was born, his father remarked, "Such hands. Perhaps he will be a man to match my father."

Giants apparently ran in Andre's family. The LA Times explained that while his parents and siblings were "normal sized," his paternal grandfather supposedly stood at an alpine 7-foot-8. The WWE listed Andre's height as 7-foot-4, though he was likely closer to 6-foot-11. Though not the tallest leviathan, he was arguably the mightiest. Andre never lifted weights, yet acquaintances alleged he could lift trees and overpower thousand-pound cows. At 12 years old he did manual labor meant for men. In adulthood he tried his hand at towing small cars … by hand. For fun he would relocate his friend's cars and occasionally wedge them between buildings and lampposts.

Andre's daunting dimensions and exceptional strength didn't tell the whole story. Friends knew him as an affable, patient person. As a young man he was an agile athlete. Many wrestlers only saw his size, however, and feared Andre would injure them.

A giant by any other name

Storybook giants are several stories tall but seldom seem short on shirts or shelter. By comparison, Andre the Giant got shortchanged. According to The Mary Sue, by age 12 he was 240 pounds and over 6 feet tall. Too big for the local school bus, he received rides to school from Waiting for Godot author Samuel Beckett, who owned a truck and owed Andre's father a favor.

Andre grew fast and grew up even faster. He left home at age 14 and delved into wrestling at 16. During the 1970s he was the most renowned wrestler on Earth, according to the LA Times. He captivated Japan as "Monster Roussimoff." Canadians called him Jean Ferre. In 1973 the father of WWE owner Vince McMahon repackaged him as Andre the Giant. He flew to Tunisia, England, and most of Europe in jets that could scarcely accommodate him.

Sports Illustrated's Terry Todd swift-wittedly likened the giant to Gulliver living in Lilliput. The tiniest tasks were enormously difficult. Todd traveled with Andre and observed, "Going through a revolving door, he must bend and take tiny shuffling steps to make the door revolve. He is unable even to consider learning to play the piano because he would strike three white keys with one finger." He bent himself like a contortionist to sort-of-fit in taxis. Hotel bathrooms afforded little to no room for him to bathe. Andre wasn't just larger than life; he was larger than daily life.

The world of the Eighth Wonder

Aspects of Andre's life sound charming. Who wouldn't love Waiting for Godot's creator to actually meet them somewhere? The problem was other people couldn't wait to meet Andre. Though the WWE dubbed him the "Eighth Wonder of the World," the world orbited him like a planet. Everyone everywhere stared at him all the time. Strangers incessantly asked about his size. Understandably, the giant longed to walk in a smaller man's shoes. (Andre wore a size 26.) He revealed in one interview: "I would give much money to be able to spend one day per week as a man of regular size." Like Godot, that day never came.

Not everyone gravitated to Andre. "Often, when I go to the homes of people who have small children, the children will run from me even though they have seen me on television," he explained. "I understand why they do this, but it is a sad feeling for me, even so." Acromegaly, the cause of his gigantism, gave him an unusual visage. His anterior pituitary gland overproduced growth hormone, distorting Andre's face in ways that terrified some young children.

Adults were intentionally hurtful. WWE Hall-of-Famer Bret Hart witnessed grannies "curse [Andre] out" for declining to sign autographs. In the trailer for an HBO documentary, announcer "Mean" Gene Okerlund said the giant "would cry" because of all the teasing he endured. Andre eventually found refuge in the QVC channel. Per CBS Sports, it allowed him to shop without "attracting unwanted audiences."

Raising the bar tab

Andre was an island in a sea of spectators, and according to coworkers, his liver swam in an ocean of booze. USA Today compiled several extraordinary stories about Andre's drinking. Ex-wrestler Gerald Brisco, for instance, claimed the giant downed six bottles of wine before matches. Hulk Hogan remembered watching Andre inhale "108 12-ounce cans of beer" in 45 minutes. Other buddies in the wrestling business said he finished "156 beers at one sitting." Modern Drunkard Magazine reported he racked up a $40,000 hotel bar tab while working on the set of The Princess Bride. Legend also has it that Andre made bars tap out with his mighty beer hug.

Stories about the world's biggest barfly read like preposterously tall tales, but they weren't much taller than Andre. In the above interview with David Letterman he openly admitted to drinking "two or three bottles" of wine with meals and 117 beers in a single night. Obviously, he loved to chug, but the giant was also drowning a sorrow. As CBS Sports explained, "Andre was living in pain."

Years of wrestling and arduous travel ravaged his anatomy. Acromegaly continually caused his bones, joints, and body to thicken, inflicting further physical stress. Pharmaceutical solutions existed, but the giant rejected them. In Andre's day, kids said their prayers and took their vitamins, but wrestlers said their promos and took their painkillers. Having seen how pills affected other performers, he refused to go that route.

A match Maeda in hell

Despite consuming staggering quantities of alcohol, Andre rarely staggered during wrestling matches. He didn't phone it in in the ring, either. Multiple wrestlers, including the great Jake "the Snake" Roberts, told CBS Sports that Andre went out of his way to make other performers look good. (He didn't always make them smell good, though. The giant once farted on Roberts in the ring.) However, that didn't seem to be the case in 1986.

In late May, Andre locked horns with Akira Maeda in Japan. Bleacher Report's Ryan Dilbert described it as "a bumbling, clumsy mess." It began with Andre bulldozing Maeda. A few maneuvers later, the giant was drenched in sweat and swaying like a sleepy pendulum. The action slowed to an amber-like stillness as Andre refused to move. Enraged, Maeda responded with vicious kicks and takedowns. The men received what looked like a mid-match lecture from another wrestler. Visibly disinterested, Andre rolled onto his back and let Maeda pin him.

Opinions on what happened vary. Some say Andre was soused. Others say he was asked to teach Maeda a lesson. Andre was known to cut opponents down to size when they got too big for their britches, and Maeda was notoriously ornery and cocky. But as Ryan Dilbert pointed out, Andre's health had begun deteriorating by that stage of his career. Moving became increasingly laborious. Even breathing burdened him as fluid accumulated around his heart. Drunk or sober, the giant was drowning in his sorrows.

Always a bridesmaid, never the princess bride

Less than three months after the Maeda match, filming for The Princess Bride began. Even if you lived under the rock Andre chucked at Wesley, you know he played the lovable Fezzik. William Goldman, who authored both the screenplay and the book that inspired it, told CNN it was the only casting choice he specifically envisioned while writing the script. It was an excellent choice.

Andre was so good it seems inconceivable that he wasn't already a Hollywood heavyweight champion. No Small Parts examined his previous acting gigs (above) and found he'd been largely cast as monsters and morons. Andre played Bigfoot, big galoots, and that big goofy demon in Conan the Destroyer. The Princess Bride was a big departure because it emphasized his humanity and allowed his personality to shine. Like Fezzik, Andre was a sweet-natured colossus. Co-star Cary Elwes (Wesley) called him "a real gentle giant" who "would give you the shirt off his back."

Andre gave so much of himself that his back gave out. For years wrestlers battered him with chairs without bothering to hold back, Elwes recalled. While making The Princess Bride, Andre couldn't do most stunts because he was always in agony. Yet he always looked happy. Mandy Patinkin (Inigo Montoya) told NPR that Andre liked that no one stared at him on the set. The second filming stopped, the stares restarted. After shooting the final scene Andre spent up to five hours posing for photos with countless fans.

The immovable object meets unstoppable immortality

While working on The Princess Bride Andre received a visit from WWE owner Vince McMahon. As the book 30 Years of WrestleMania described, WrestleMania III was approaching. Fans were promised a "bigger, better, and badder" show than ever, and who better to fulfill that promise than wrestling's biggest star playing a bad guy? McMahon wanted Andre to face Hulk Hogan, the industry's premier babyface, in the main event. Framed as a meeting between "the irresistible force" and "the immovable object," the match would feature Hogan slamming the immovable Andre on his back.

Andre's back was in tatters. Remember the scene in The Princess Bride where the eponymous princess leaps from the castle into Fezzik's arms? Per IMDB, she had to be suspended from wires because Andre couldn't support her weight. The giant couldn't lift a tiny actress, so how could he possibly elevate the world's largest wrestling spectacle? To grant McMahon's wish he had to have an unwanted back surgery.

To conceal Andre's operation from fans, the WWE pretended to suspend him "for not fulfilling contractual obligations." In reality, he was subjecting himself to unnecessary suffering. Hogan told Detroit News that Andre's "back was bad." Footage from their match says it all. The immovable object struggles to move, his face a parade of grimaces. Yet Andre somehow hoists Hogan on his beleaguered back and later allows that back to be slammed against the unforgiving mat. That moving sacrifice lifted wrestling to new heights.

Andre's giant regret

In terms of magnitude WrestleMania III was the brightest highlight of Andre's wrestling career. A record 93,173 fans packed the stands of the Pontiac Silverdome to see Andre and Hogan cement their legacies. It was the largest turnout for an indoor sporting event in all of North America, per 30 Years of WrestleMania. Aretha Franklin and Alice Cooper added to the enchantment. Sadly, someone very special missed Andre's special moment: his daughter.

Robin Christensen-Roussimoff (shown above) was Andre's only child. Her mother Jean met him in the early 1970s. They became parents several years later. Jean and Andre had a rocky relationship. Robin and Andre had almost no relationship. Per CBS Sports, she could only recall seeing her father five times in person.

On an episode of the Wrestle Zone Radio Podcast, Robin estimated Andre spent 298 days a year on the road during his heyday. He didn't take her with him, and she seldom watched wrestling on television. So Robin mostly knows her father through other wrestlers' memories, old recordings, and conversations with Cary Elwes.

One of Andre's best friends said the gulf between him and his daughter "broke his heart." It must have made the weight of fame far heavier. However, Robin also suggested Andre kept a distance to shield her from the wrestling business. Given how people treated him, it makes sense. Small-minded people belittled the giant, and little kids often hid from him. Who would want their child to witness that?

A titan's twilight

During his incredible career Andre battled many beasts. He knocked out the great Gorilla Monsoon in a gimmick boxing match. In the above clip he flings, flips, and nearly flattens the famous Harley Race. He even defeated Hulk Hogan (albeit dishonestly) for the world title. The giant's biggest opponent, however, was time.

At age 23 Andre learned he could die by age 40, according to confidante Jackie McCauley. She explained to CBS Sports that Japanese doctors diagnosed his acromegaly and warned him of its lethality. They even offered to operate on him before time ran out. The giant declined. Rather than alter the body he believed God gave him, Andre used it to become a wrestling deity.

Back then time was still on his side. Andre wowed crowds with his athleticism. He regularly performed the tombstone piledriver, wherein he held someone upside down and seemingly spiked their head into the mat by dropping to his knees. Twenty years later Andre's knees were buckling, and he was becoming entombed in his body. As the LA Times detailed, in the 1980s Andre started wearing a back brace. By the early 1990s the immovable object was immobile. Hardcore wrestling pioneer Terry Funk revealed Andre had to have "huge chunks of bone" removed during multiple knee surgeries. Still a beloved star, he performed in Japan and Mexico in tag matches. Once a titan who carried the wrestling world, Andre now needed others to do the heavy lifting.

The Eighth Wonder leaves the world

There are things a person never outgrows, even if that person never stops growing. For Andre that thing was cards. CBS Sports reported the giant delighted in playing cribbage. That pastime followed him from farm life to fame, and not even wrestling got in the way. Friend and in-ring adversary Jake Roberts recalled, "He was very serious about his cribbage game to the point of 'Screw the match, we're not through with this game yet,' you know? He wouldn't walk away."

No matter what hand life dealt him, Andre continued playing cards. In January 1993 his father died. He returned to France and remained for his mother's birthday. On January 27, he surrounded himself with lifelong friends and immersed himself in cards. By 8 the next morning, Andre's giant, gentle, card-loving heart had stopped beating. He was 46.

In death, just as in life, Andre's size hindered him. As the LA Times elaborated, he wanted to have his body cremated within 48 hours and his ashes spread over his North Carolina ranch. But no crematorium in France could handle a man of his magnitude. So best friends Jackie McCauley and Frenchy Bernard flew his body to America, where it was reduced to 17 pounds of ashes, according to Bleacher Report.

Andre named three people in his will: Jackie, Frenchy, and his daughter Robin. He signed it not as Andre but "A. Roussimoff," a man everyone stared at but few people actually saw.