An article by Mike Mooneyham
Published in January 1994
He was a bear of a man, standing over seven feet tall and weighing more than 500 pounds. Andre Rene Rousimoff, better known to millions as Andre The Giant, left a big void in the world of professional wrestling when he recently passed away of a heart attack at the age of 46.
Andre was stricken while visiting his native France to attend his father’s funeral. He visited his family before returning to his hotel room where he died, said longtime friend Frenchie Bernard.
“He was lying in his bed when they found him,” Bernard said. “He just went to sleep and never woke up.”
Andre, who appeared in a number of movies and commercials, was best known on the silver screen as the gentle giant Fezzick in the 1987 film “The Princess Bride.”
But wrestling was his forte, even though health problems had plagued him during much of his career. Andre, who became wrestling’s biggest star upon his U.S. debut in 1971, wrestled only sporadically in Mexico and Japan during the past year. A severe back problem had limited his mobility in recent years and he appeared only in tag-team matches where his in-ring activity would be minimal.
His final mat appearance was as part of a team with Giant Baba in December in an annual tag-team tournament in Japan. His last U.S. appearance was as a guest at TBS’s 20th wrestling anniversary Sept. 1 at the Clash of Champions show in Atlanta.
Andre, who was born in Grenoble, France, and lived on a 200-acre ranch in Ellerbe, N.C., was born with acromegaly, a disorder marked by progressive enlargement of the head, face, hands, feet and chest due to excessive secretion of growth hormones. And although he was often billed as being 7-4 and 7-5, Andre was actually “only” 7-2 when he began his career and had leveled out to under seven feet tall in recent years.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]Andre, whose grandfather was said to have been an amazing eight feet tall, was billed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and served as a goodwill ambassador for the sport, traveling to all corners of the globe and drawing tremendous crowds wherever he appeared. His death touched many who had worked with Andre over the years.
“We are deeply saddened by the death of Andre,” said WWF owner Vince McMahon. “He was a legendary athlete, a dear friend and an important member of the World Wrestling Federation for two decades. He was instrumental in the growth of the WWF and helped it achieve the worldwide recognition and success that the organization now enjoys. His legacy will live on forever in the hearts of the WWF family and his millions of fans. He will be sorely missed.”
The bell sounded 10 times at a recent WWF show at Madison Square Garden in memory of Andre.
Andre was one of pro wrestling’s biggest gate attractions and was the sport’s highest-paid performer during the 1970s and the early ’80s. He fought Hulk Hogan before the largest pay-per-view audience in the history of wrestling, some 520,000 paying $10 million, in 1987. A paid attendance of 90,873 at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., the largest outdoor gathering for any entertainment event in history, witnessed the match live. On a prime-time NBC telecast in 1988, Andre won the WWF world title from Hogan in the most-watched wrestling match of the decade. A celebrated feud with the 6-7, 350-pound Big John Studd also attracted sellouts from 1983-87, with Andre making the huge Studd look small in comparison.
There were the obvious problems associated with a man of his size, but Andre took them all in stride. One of the giant’s favorite stories was about the time he and the late Haystacks Calhoun, who himself weighed 600 pounds, went to a diner.
“There was a place next to the arena which was one of those all-you-can-eat-for-two-dollars joints,” Andre said in a 1973 interview. “When Haystacks and I walked in you could see the waitress almost faint. About 30 seconds later the manager comes out, takes a peek at us, and shakes his head and goes back to the kitchen. Haystacks and I decided to tie on a real big feed that night and the waitresses were hysterical. They told us the manager was tearing his hair out and practically in tears. But we felt badly, since we must’ve eaten about $25 worth of food for $4. So after it was over we told him we’d pay for the regular price instead of the all-you-can-eat price. He thanked us for that and told us two more like us could put him out of business.”
Veteran Black Jack Mulligan, whose matches with Andre drew sellout crowds throughout the U.S. and Canada, was partly responsible for introducing Andre to the American style of wrestling.
“I was with the Grand Prix Wrestling promotion in Canada in 1971,” Mulligan said. “The promotion was run by Edouard Carpentier and the Vachon Brothers, and we actually brought Andre in. He was an instant success. We sold out the Montreal Forum, Quebec City and Ottawa, and drew huge crowds in northern Quebec. Andre, of course, spoke French and the fans in Canada loved him.
“We certainly did well together. He first wrestled in the U.S. with myself, Ivan Koloff and Don Leo Jonathan. We started him off, and he produced an immediate explosion. Those were instant paydays. Boy, I wish I had all the money back I made with that guy.”
Mulligan, who at 6-7 was a natural opponent for Andre, remembers Andre as a “happy-go-lucky guy who enjoyed life to the fullest.”
“Andre loved life,” said Mulligan. “But I know it must have been tough for him, dealing with this disease, and knowing this was eventually going to happen. I think he had come to grips with his own situation. We all knew the time would come, but we hated to see it happen. He was just a great, lovable guy. What a sad loss for all of us.
“I remember some years back sitting on my ranch in Texas raising cattle. Andre was doing a deal for Vince McMahon under a mask as Big Giant Machine. Andre hurt his back, and Vince asked me to come to New York to take Andre’s place. I’ll never forget my first payoff. It was before a record crowd in Montreal. I received $12,500 for about 10 minutes of work. Andre was hurting so bad, we walked him to the ring. I spent about six months doing that gimmick and made tons of money.”
Mulligan, the father of WCW star Barry Windham, recalled an embarrassing incident involving Andre in a dressing room in Rochester, N.Y.
“This young intern, or medical student, was administering physicals to the wrestlers in the dressing room and when he got to Andre, he started shouting, `His head, his head, look how big it is! Oh my God, he’s got acromegaly!’ We told him, `Chill out, doc.’ Someone got the promoter and told him to get this guy out. But Andre didn’t get upset or mad. He just took it in stride. He was really a lovable human being.
“One of my most memorable moments was about 15 years ago when Dick Murdoch and I threw a party for him in Virginia Beach. We had this special suite on the beach, and we surprised him with a birthday cake and a garbage can full of beer. He really loved that. He actually cried – he had tears in his eyes. We had so much fun. That really was a great time.”
Mulligan says Andre had a villa outside Paris and he used to send him things periodically. Despite never being married, Andre was every bit a “lady’s man,” Mulligan said.
“You’d be surprised, but a lot of girls liked him. He treated women with the utmost respect, and they really liked him. I used to rib him all the time about some of the good-looking girls he went out with. I said, `Man, you’re gonna kill that little girl.’ He looked at me and smiled, `Don’t worry about it, boss.’ He always called me `boss.’
Greg “The Hammer” Valentine also remembers Andre as “a very close friend and one of the greatest in the business.”
“Andre took me under his wing in 1975 when we went to Tokyo together,” Valentine recalled. “He was a close friend ever since. I never did have to wrestle him (in a singles match), but occasionally we’d have matches with me and Flair against Andre and Wahoo McDaniel in the late ’70s, and he’d throw me all over the ring. I never wanted to wrestle him again.
“Nobody – nobody in the world of professional wrestling – could beat Andre. When he was younger, he was very agile and just incredible for a man his size. His loss is a deep one for professional wrestling.”
Former WWF world champion “Superstar” Billy Graham, who worked with Andre on many occasions throughout the ’70s and ’80s, said Andre helped shape the current era of pro wrestling.
“I started working with Andre up in Minnesota for Verne Gagne in ’73 and then down in Houston for Paul Boesch in the mid-’70s. Andre liked me. And when he liked someone, he really worked well with you. I was one one of the first guys he ever let pick him up, get him off his feet and take him down. But it was only because the man liked me. That was the only stipulation on that deal.
“We worked a lot of tags in the Milwaukee area, with me and Baron Von Raschke against Andre and Dusty Rhodes. Then we had a lot of singles in Houston. We drew great. But if you couldn’t draw well with Andre, you might as well get out of the business.”
“He was a fantastic individual,” said Graham. “We would eat together after the matches, and he would never let you buy anything. Whether you were eating or drinking, he would buy. He was always paid so far and above the average boys anyway. He had a splendid, splendid personality. He was awfully good for the business.
“It’s really amazing, but he had no lack of girlfriends. I never could figure it out, but he ended with some very beautiful women. Andre left a trail of broken hearts. He was a super, super guy.”
Jerry Brisco, a top star in the ’70s and ’80s who now promotes for the WWF, was another close friend of Andre.
“We were buddies,” Brisco said. “I’ll never forget the time we were wrestling in this two-ring battle royal in St. Petersburg, Fla., in the late ’70s. Of course with my size, not being the biggest guy in the world, the first thing I tried to do was take him down from behind. I sucker-punched him. And then I ran. When Andre turned around, he saw my brother Jack standing there. He said, `You’re gonna pay for that, Brisco,’ and he threw Jack from one 18-foot ring all the way into the other 18-foot ring. I don’t think Jack ever forgave me for that one.
“There were many great memories outside the ring, besides our beer-drinking days. In about ’75 or ’76, we were in Griffin, Ga. I had just bought a Mercedes convertible, and it was my pride and joy. Andre wanted to drive, and I wasn’t about to argue with him. I tossed him the keys, but we had to put the top down because his head would have come through it. Here we are cruising down the highway at about 75 or 80 with Andre behind the wheel, and this Georgia Highway Patrolman passes us, flips on his lights and turns around. You could see the amazed look on his face as he got closer to our car. By the time he got out of his patrol car, he had taken his gun out of his holster and looked completely terrified. When he got up to us, he said, `Holy Cow, it’s Andre The Giant!’ We didn’t get a ticket, but we had to stay about an hour signing autographs for the backup patrolmen who were called in.
“God love him, he was as gentle a human being as there ever was. I’ll miss him.”
Andre, who began wrestling professionally in 1969 in Japan, worked under several names early in his career, including Jean Ferre and Giant Machine. His mobility was greatly slowed down after breaking an ankle in a 1981 match with Killer Kahn.
Despite the handicaps of being a giant, Andre once said he’d have it no other way.
“No, I don’t think that I’d change. There are times, like when I get a hotel bed that’s two feet too small or when I smash my head into a doorway, that I say to myself I wish I wasn’t so big. But all in all I like who I am. I like standing out in a crowd. Being a giant has its problems. But I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have problems, and there’s no one I’d like to change places with. Being a giant is fun – most of the time.”
“Andre didn’t miss a thing,” said Mulligan. “It was quite a life he lived.”