Whether you know it or not, you’ve seen his face plastered on subway walls and street signs the world over. You adored him in The Princess Bride. And just watching his awe-inspiring frame enter the wrestling arena made you gape in wonder and amazement. When it comes to André the Giant, no famous face has ever been larger.
So who was this giant man really? Who knew him best? What did he truly want to get out of his superhuman life? And what were the dire consequences of his unbelievable condition? Read on, and you’ll uncover the man behind the mythology.
Actor, wrestler, personality… and giant. André the Giant was truly one of a kind, a unique balance of physical prowess enveloping a gentle soul and generous heart. His story is one of a rise to fame, a gigantic triumph over painful obstacles.
But how much do we really know about this larger than life character? Before saving princesses or menacing the corners of the ring, André the Giant was a simple country boy betrayed by his own body, whose life circumstances catapulted him into the spotlight – as well as tragedy.
The man who would one day pin down the world was born to immigrant farmers on May 19, 1946, in the tiny pastoral village of Molien, France. André René Roussimoff was 11 pounds at birth — big, though not unusual. He was healthy and showed no signs of being different.
Known as Dédé around the family, André’s story is one of humble beginnings. He had a simple childhood in the French countryside more than forty kilometers away from the noise and bustle of Paris. But the quiet of farm life would soon be forever altered.
Boris and Mariann Roussimoff found out soon enough that not all was normal with their boy. Around his teenage years, when his peers were having their growth spurts, André grew too — but he didn’t stop at a regular height. He quickly and inexplicably surpassed all of them.
Though none of his siblings exhibited signs of gigantism, they were apparently accustomed to tall people in the family. André’s Bulgarian grandfather was said to have stood like a tree at an incredible 7’8”. His family wondered: could the not-so-little boy’s condition have been congenital?
As quickly as he grew, André came to struggle with the challenges of his giant size. He was a good student, but by the age of 12, he faced an upsetting problem: he didn’t fit on the school bus anymore, and his family was too poor to afford a car.
Help came from the most unexpected of places. A neighbor who was a friend of Mr. Roussimoff offered to give André rides in the back of his flatbed pickup truck. Who was this good Samaritan? None other than famed Irish playwright and Nobel laureate, Samuel Beckett. But André’s story was still far from over.
For young André Roussimoff, even the most banal daily tasks became an ordeal because of his massive size. He liked music, but how could he play the guitar or the piano with such humongous hands? Even dialing on a phone required that he use a pencil. His fingers were just too big.
André quit school after eighth grade, as he didn’t see any reason to finish his education when all he was going to do was work on the farm. When he tried to enlist in the French Army, they rejected him, too. He was simply too big for the uniforms and beds.
It was tough growing up huge, but André Roussimoff was a natural at sports, especially soccer and rugby. One fateful day at the gym, his friends told him an injured wrestler needed a replacement, and asked if André could substitute. André hesitated. He’d never considered wrestling before, but decided to go for it.
When André realized he was good at the sport, he moved to Paris to learn to be a wrestler. He trained by night, and worked as a mover by day — growing all the while. When he returned to the village once to surprise his parents, they didn’t even recognize him. But where would his budding career take him?
André Roussimoff had made the right choice. He worked hard to develop himself as a wrestler, and at the age of 20 he stumbled across a promoter named Frank Valois. Frank was so impressed with the young giant that he took him overseas to Canada to become a full fledged wrestler. A new career had begun!
Frank became André’s manager. He advised him and began booking him all over the world. Suddenly, this oversized French farm boy was appearing everywhere: England, Germany, Australia, and more. After the difficulties of childhood as a giant, it truly seemed things were finally looking up.
As André the wrestler traveled the world, billed under the stage name “Jean Ferré”, he found that even in stardom, he could not escape from the everyday obstacles of being a huge man in an average world. Nowhere was this more apparent than Japan.
André Roussimoff quickly became a fan favorite in Japan. Unfortunately, the Japanese penchant for size efficiency worked against him — small beds, small bathrooms, small everything! But his proportions were not just a nuisance. As he was about to learn, the consequences were far more dire than he could ever have imagined.
During his stay in Japan in 1970, André finally learned there was a horrible secret behind his huge size. He was diagnosed as having a disorder called acromegaly, meaning a brain tumor was the culprit behind his rapid growth. The doctors then told him he might not make it to the age of 40.
The shocking, painful revelation would send most people spiraling into depression and hopelessness. But André Roussimoff refused to allow the diagnosis to stop him. No matter what, he was determined to achieve his dreams of fame and success. He made a choice: he was going to persevere.
Despite his dark secret, André quite literally pushed forward with his wrestling career, and it paid off. He was routinely selling out stadiums, and built a dedicated fan base that came to marvel at his stature, and applaud him. That is, until he was defeated.
To the amazement of his fans, in a match in Baghdad in 1971, André was flounced by Iraqi wrestler Adnan Al-Kaissie. Never before had people seen the giant so vulnerable. It was humiliating. But behind the scenes, he’d caught an important eye. Someone was paying attention.
André was spotted by the biggest name in his field, the most famous professional wrestling promoter of all time, Vince McMahon. At last, he had the sponsorship he needed. But before the pair could take André’s career into the stratosphere, McMahon demanded some changes.
Vince McMahon decided he had to change the wrestler’s image. No more agility and dropkicks as before; he wanted to market André as a monstrous, lumbering beast. The new branding also needed a new name. He kept it simple — from now on, André René Roussimoff would be called André the Giant. A star had been born.
André’s career as a pro wrestler exploded. After debuting at none other than Madison Square Garden, he was on top of the world — and not just physically. Just one year into his new image, André won a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the highest-paid wrestler in history.
With such a formidable physical presence, how could you avoid seeing him? André’s unforgettably enormous face with its long frizzy hair was known on every continent. Whether they were fans of wrestling or not, it seemed everyone wanted a chance to gape in wonder at André the Giant. But that’s not all.
André the Giant, the poor farmer’s son, became the king and leading champion of the wrestling world, towering like Goliath above his opponents. Within the World Wide Wrestling Foundation, it’s reported that he was able to remain undefeated for a ludicrous fifteen years.
Spectators and fans went giddy with excitement just to watch him enter the arena and to see if the myth was real, if such an unusually massive human being truly existed. Just seeing his remarkable persona made you instantly root for him to win. But not everybody rooted for him.
With American wrestling’s leap to cable television, WWF fighters became household names. Most fabled of all was the tall blond machine with a handlebar mustache, Hulk Hogan. Underneath the flamboyant and thundering personalities that the two of them portrayed on stage, he and André the Giant became friends.
André the Giant and Hulk Hogan fought across America and overseas, trading off who would be the hero or the villain. But all record of that would be erased. For the biggest and most bombastic match yet, they would have to declare they’d never feuded. The stage was set.
It was the most jaw-dropping spectacle the wrestling world had seen. The sensational final event of 1987’s Wrestlemania III was between two titans: André the Giant and Hulk Hogan. Fans — over 93,000 there in the Pontiac Silverdome, and almost 1,000,000 watching at home — were stupefied with excitement.
Wrestlemania III held the record for 12 years as the largest live event held at an indoor stadium. André had been shown ‘bullying’ Hulk and ripping his shirt, and when Hogan succeeded in toppling the giant, he had secured a place as a superhero of wrestling. But what happened after the fight took place?
Completing a mammoth fight like Wrestlemania III required some massive celebrations. You can’t talk about André the Giant without taking a moment to wonder: just how much can he throw back? Actually, the wrestler was infamous for his astounding drinking abilities. Hulk Hogan even recalled that he could never have less than 24 drinks in one sitting — for starters.
Other colleagues tell tales of the giant downing more than a hundred drinks in a session, the highest quote stands (barely) at a staggering 156 beers in one go. Surprisingly, despite his notoriety, alcohol rarely had much of an effect on him. But that’s not the only impressive ability André the Giant had.
André the Giant’s rollercoaster ride of fame to the top of the world opened a new field of opportunities for him: acting! After all, in a world before CGI, who would be more convincing playing the hulking, terrifying brute strength of an enraged Bigfoot than André?
On The Six Million Dollar Man, André gave an unforgettable, scene-stealing performance as the furry behemoth. He also guested on the popular show B.J. and the Bear. As a result of his foray into the acting world, you’ll never believe which A-lister became André’s buddy — or will you?
Though uncredited, André worked on the film Conan the Destroyer alongside Hollywood strongman Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger remembers a classic example of André’s enormous generosity: because André wanted his friends to always be treated like the finest guests, one could ever insist on paying the bill when he was around.
Arnold tested this golden rule at a restaurant once, and André calmly lifted Schwarzenegger out of his seat, plopped him at a safe distance, and paid. But looks can be deceiving. His principles were his solace, as the price of fame began to take its toll.
André the Giant’s success was a double-edged sword. Underlying his friendly demeanor and extraordinary size was an unbelievable sadness. He hated being stared at, being a spectacle, having to play a character. Famous or not, he couldn’t do a simple thing like go to the supermarket without being gawked at.
Those close to him say that André cried often, in recurrent physical pain from his medical condition in addition to the stresses of being a celebrity. Even worse, his career would also end up keeping him from one person in particular that he wished he could be closer to.
At the height of his success, in 1979, something wonderful happened. André the Giant became a father to his only child, a little girl named Robin. He was probably overjoyed and relieved to see that she had not inherited his burden of acromegaly.
But a life on the road was incompatible with fatherhood, as he only rarely had the chance to spend time with his daughter. But in a way, his absence was a blessing. She would never know what pain had accompanied him in the spotlight of stardom. But that’s not all the future had in store for the gentle giant.
Behind the myth, behind the character and the act, André’s gigantism kept his body growing uncontrollably. By the late ’80s, the strain on his bones and joints became unbearable. To complicate matters even further, he was offered a part in a major Hollywood motion picture. How could he keep wrestling?
André needed back surgery, badly, but couldn’t let fans know what was wrong. WWF promoter Vince McMahon had to take action. Mercifully, he “indefinitely suspended” André from wrestling. It was all a gimmick to hide the truth about his star’s deteriorating health. But it had afforded André the opportunity of a lifetime.
And so, André landed a career-defining role, the one we all remember and love: playing good guy Fezzik in the instant classic The Princess Bride. As a wrestler from Greenland, you might say he was typecast. But in fact, there was no one else who could play the part.
Tall and beefy stars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lou Ferrigno had auditioned, but the part had been written specifically for André. William Goldman, the author of the novel on which the film was based, went to director Rob Reiner to insist that Fezzik had to be him. But that wasn’t all.
André was adored by his fellow actors on The Princess Bride. Princess Buttercup actress Robin Wright remembers how his size could even come in handy: when she was freezing cold during a shoot in the woods, he put his huge hand on her head to warm her face!
Off camera, André enjoyed spending time with his new friends, where he felt like he could truly be himself. But even though he always had a smile on his face, his Princess Bride castmates were some of the few people outside his personal circle who could see just how much André was suffering.
Throughout filming The Princess Bride, André the Giant was in great pain. Remember when Princess Buttercup falls into his arms? Actress Robin Wright had to be lowered by cables so no real weight would be on André. It’s almost illogical to think such an immense man could be so delicate.
Cast and crew remember how André was constantly drinking, though it was not with the goal of escapism or partying. Rather, he used it to self-medicate in an attempt to dull the pain in his body. Read on to see how he managed to fight through his condition.
Inigo Montoya actor Mandy Patinkin says André liked being on The Princess Bride set because nobody stared at him. There, the giant was finally treated like an equal. Nevertheless, if anyone wanted a picture with him, he would graciously oblige and take the time to pose.
The day filming wrapped up, Patinkin says, everyone came around with their kids to take photographs with André. The cast waited with him for hours until the task was complete. He truly had a giant heart, but his giant size was taking its toll.
Filming The Princess Bride set wasn’t the first time André the Giant had to brave through immense pain to perform. As a matter of fact, even during Wrestlemania III, underneath the spectacle lay the sad truth. Walking with a cane, André came to the event wearing his signature black singlet, but it secretly hid a back brace.
The whole match was Hulk Hogan working with his friend’s limitations, heartbreakingly trying his hardest not to hurt him. When Hulk won, it meant André could finally bow out and have some peace on his North Carolina ranch. It was his deliberate swan song.
But the story doesn’t end there.
After years allowing his place in the spotlight to fade, André just wanted to live quietly on his ranch. There, no one would stare. In January 1993, he flew back to his childhood village, Molien, France, to be with his ailing father before he passed away, and remained there for the funeral.
He extended his stay to be with his mother for her birthday. Catching up with childhood friends, he enjoyed his favorite pastime: card games. André said goodbye, and returned to Paris for a night. Little did they know it was the last time they would see his big smile.
He was supposed to have lunch with his mother. But on the afternoon of January 27, 1993, André René Roussimoff’s driver entered the star’s Paris hotel room, and made a tragic discovery. The gentle giant had passed away in his bed from congestive heart failure, alone in his hotel room. He was 46 years old.
His body was flown back to America, where he was cremated. Then his ashes were interred at his ranch in rural North Carolina, where he loved to go to escape how much the world loved and hurt him. But he had ensured one, final act of kindness.
In his will, André the Giant left his entire estate to his daughter, Robin Christensen Roussimoff. The little girl who had grown up rarely seeing her father, who he had tried to shield from the dark side of the spotlight, became his sole benefactor.
After a career looming over the cameras of the world, it was his own humble way of doing what he could in order to make things right. This silent, intangible gesture represents what he always wished others could see in him: love and selflessness.
André the Giant lives on as a legend. Posthumously, the differently abled boy from a poor French farm became the first wrestler to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. His likeness became a pop culture symbol on the “Obey” stencils and stickers you see everywhere in the world.
Smiling through his disability and illness, André Roussimoff gave of himself to allow the world to enjoy themselves and to be filled with wonder, no matter the cost. Through his actions and his character, he proved that size wasn’t the only thing that made him truly larger than life.
Sources: Wrestler: The Documentary, Andrethegiant.com