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 Hehirs 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 industrys history, Andres showdown against Hogan at 1987s 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 hima 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 acromegalya 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 circuitfirst in Montreal, and then in the American Midwesthe 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 Andres unrivaled appeal and started regularly booking him, as well as leasing him out to other territories. As Mean Gene Okerlund remembers, Andre wasnt the most articulate of performers in interviews, but he was immensely expressive in the ring, and Hehirs wealth of clips of the Giant rampaging through opponents in venues both big and smalloften in two-against-one bouts, or in Battle Royales, which provided opportunities to see him manhandle heavyweights like they were childrenably 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 wrestlings numerous regional outfits to create the modern-era WWEreplete with a coast-to-coast cable-TV platform to promote itAndre became one of the companys 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 didnt give him the proper respect. As Hogan humorously remembers (replete with spot-on vocal impersonations), targets of Andres wrath included Randy Macho Man Savage, The Iron Sheik, and Big John Studd, whose unfortunate position on Andres bad side led to near-death beatings in the squared circle.
Executive produced by Bill Simmons, and sharply directed by Hehir, Andre the Giant doesnt have to work hard to mythologize the grappler. With wide-eyed wonder, numerous commenters (including Andres The Princess Bride co-star Robin Wright) recall the size of his hands, which were big enough to cover the top half of a persons 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 theres 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, babywhat can I tell you? And hes wearing size 24 shoeswhat else do you want to know?
As the 80s wore on, Andres 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 tragedynot because Andre didnt 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 Giants 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 partners best interests at hearta 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, Andrehaving kept Hogan in the dark about how the match would endchose 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 momentan 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.