The nature of wrestling doesn’t so much encourage exaggeration as demand it. Even so, it’s hard to argue that the colossal stature of ‘The Eighth Wonder of the World’ André the Giant is anything but just. I forget where I first saw the gargantuan Frenchman – it might have been in a video game or perhaps on some old video tapes. But his impact was instantaneous. His size seemed immediately so appropriate for who he was. He was captivating, and very quickly became my favourite wrestler.
In his prime André was well over seven feet tall, and after moving from France to America in the early seventies, it didn’t take long for him to become one of the most recognised celebrities, not just there but all over the world. While professional wrestling was still restricted to small regional territories, André was a global star, the charasmatic saviour to all those wanting their local heel to get his comeuppance, and doubtless instrumental in the astronomical ascension that would come in the ensuing fifteen years.
Indeed André was at the centre of its crescendo in 1987, turning evil and going for Hulk Hogan’s World Championship at WrestleMania III. A reported figure of 93,173 packed the Pontiac Silverdome to see Hogan best André in what is seen by many as The Giant’s swansong, generously giving back to the business and handing over to the new torch-bearer. Hogan may have already been huge for years by this point, but it was André who elevated him to the next level.
Like many giants, André had acromegaly, a condition which triggers overproduction of the growth hormone. He didn’t stop growing. Of course, this put perpetual strain on his body. Once an agile athlete, by the mid-eighties André could scarcely move, putting the aforementioned matches with Hogan into serious jeopardy. He had not long returned from back surgery in an attempt to relieve excruciating pain. It did seem especially cruel that, just as the industry was reaching this monstrous boom, his body was doing all it could to stop him from being a part of it. But André was old school – medicated by unimaginable quantities of wine and sheer determination, he still went out and performed, putting on a spectacle that will likely never be matched.
His interviews were also something to witness, thanks in no small part to that booming French accent.
Spectacle was not confined to the ring ropes, either; he’s fondly remembered by another audience for his role as Fezzik in The Princess Bride, which came toward the end of a long list of film and TV outings for André. A menacing-looking mountain of a man, with simple, sporting principles, and possessing a certain penchant for rhyming games at the least appropriate moments – “Anybody want a peanut?” – the character of Fezzik proved perfect for a man known for many years as ‘The Gentle Giant’. Given the apparent pain André was in during the shooting – a man of untested strength was unable to carry Buttercup (Robin Wright) without supporting cables – he still moved with such purity, possessing the same mystique and charisma that he brought to the wrestling arena, only here, he was allowed to express that in an entirely different manner. He was a performer – a performer with wicked sideburns, too!
There’s a rather touching feature on André from fellow Princess Bride cast and crew, here. It’s clear that he was as warmly greeted by his fellows as he was by the public; he received great praise for his performance, and the film was one of his proudest accolades, though the extent and nature of his pride is not known for sure. Some of his WWF buddies claimed that André exhibited private, subtle modesty about the role, acknowledging but neglecting to talk at length about it, while others have alleged that he made his fellow grapplers watch the flick while on the road over and over again – let’s be honest, this could well be true. I mean, seriously, would you argue with André the Giant over the remote control?
After filming Bride and putting Hogan over, André continued to work for the WWF but his skills were so diminished by this point that, entertaining though his feuds were, they are hard to watch, especially so when being made to lose to the likes of The Ultimate Warrior. He needed a manager to rest his arm on walking to the ring, and only took part in tag team matches so that his time grappling could be minimised. After a brief run as a Tag Team Champion with Haku, he officially retired in 1990, but continued to work sporadically in Mexico and Japan until December 1992. He refused to stop wrestling. It seems torturous and dangerous on one hand, but understandable on another; I think he saw retirement as waving the white flag, which wasn’t how he operated. It was what he loved doing, and he was evidently very determined to keep going. That can’t go without admiration.
André passed away peacefully in January 1993, aged forty-six, remembered forever as an example of how beauty comes in many forms and a reminder of just how diverse we really are. I don’t follow wrestling anymore, and haven’t for a decade, but I’m aware that André is as revered and respected today as he ever was, perhaps even more. Rightly so. Without him, things would have been very different indeed. There will never be another André the Giant!