Requiem FOR A Giant : There Was No One Bigger in Wrestling Than Andre Rousimoff, Who Had a Disease That Caused His Abnormal Growth
In the modern fable, the giant is felled not by a slingshot or a squadron of fighter planes, but by his heart.
Imagine that, a muscle taking Andre Rousimoff down.
He was Andre The Giant in life and thereafter, a wonder of the world and sometimes an imposition on the rest of us. When he laid his head down for the last time Jan. 27 in Paris, 12 days after he buried his father, Andre might have thought his burden over.
No more stooping through doorways, no more slack-jawed gapes at the sight of his huge head and hands, no more children running in fear.
No more business trips to undersized Japan, of all places, to pick up his oversized tailor-made clothes.
No more shoes, size 26.
Yet, Andre would pose problems even in death. When they finally broke down his hotel door in Paris to discover Andre dead, at age 46 of an apparent heart attack, the next thought was what to do with him.
The Giant instructed in his will that his body be cremated within 48 hours, the ashes to be sprinkled over his 200-acre ranch in Ellerbe, N.C.
Andre was born in Grenoble, France, spoke the language fluently, wolfed down seven-course gourmet meals liked appetizers, washed it all down with bottles of expensive Burgundy but, in the end, his own country could not accommodate him.
The phone call, from France, rang at the Ellerbe ranch. The voice insisted there was not a crematory large enough to handle The Giant, who probably weighed 530 pounds at time of death.
Could someone please come get The Giant?
Jackie Bernard, a longtime friend who lived at the ranch with her husband, Frenchy, flew overseas to
arrange transport of Andre’s body back home to North Carolina.
Andre the Giant was cremated in North Carolina on Feb. 11, more than two weeks after he had requested.
Lucky for us, Andre was always a patient man.
“It’s a good thing he didn’t have a temper, or there would have been a lot of accidents,” says Frank Valois, Andre’s caretaker during his barnstorming days as the world’s most famous professional wrestler in the 1970s.
In his final months, The Giant moved with great difficulty, having buckled under his own weight. He suffered from acromegaly, or “giantism,” a disease in which the body secretes large amounts of the growth hormone, causing continual growth to the head, hands and feet.
Andre the Giant, who towered above most at nearly 7 feet, walked with a stoop near the end. He had an operation in 1986 to relieve pressure to his weakened spine. To perform the procedure, surgeons in England had to construct oversized instruments.
Terry Funk, a longtime pro wrestler, toured Japan with Andre last November.
“He was in a great deal of pain by then,” Funk remembered.
Andre had shown Funk the X-rays of his recent knee surgeries.
“They had taken out huge chunks of bone,” Funk said. “I mean chunks.”
Andre, a man of moods, was at times a loner, especially near the end. He never married. A 13-year- old daughter was never discussed.
Because of his disease, doctors estimated Andre would not live to age 50. To some, it explained The Giant’s unfathomable ability to consume alcohol.
His fate sealed, it was speculated, Andre drank to numb the reality.
Except that when Andre stepped to the bar, reality never stood a chance.
Once, in the 1970s, Funk pulled up a bar-stool next to The Giant.
“I swear he drank 100 beers one night in Amarillo, Tex.,” Funk said.
Frenchy Bernard, Andre’s closest friend at the time of his death, said he saw The Giant drink 72 double shots of vodka at one sitting.
Then, he stood up.
“And walked straighter than hell,” Bernard said.
Another time, Andre did not get up. It has been said that he passed out in a hotel lobby after drinking 119 beers. Too big to move, friends draped him with a piano cover and passed him off as furniture while The Giant slept it off.
In his younger years, Andre seemed resigned to his fate.
“He had it on his mind all the time that he was going to die young,” Valois contended.
The longer he survived, though, the more Andre had doubts about his acromegaly.
“There were reports that said he did have it and reports that said he didn’t,” Jackie Bernard said. “He chose to believe that he didn’t.”
The Giant often spoke about what it would like to be normal. He could not play the piano because one of his enormous fingers engaged three keys.
His wrists, as thick as those of some lowland gorillas, measured a foot in circumference.
It bothered The Giant that he scared children.
“Often when I go to home of people who have small children, the children will run from me, even though they have seen me on television,” Andre told a writer. “I understand why they do this but it is a sad feeling for me, even so.”
For all its shortcomings, though, Andre loved being The Giant. He often discounted reports of larger humans roaming the Earth.
He did not feel used or degraded as he was hauled from town-to-town like some Barnum and Bailey sideshow.
“He never felt he was on display,” a longtime friend said.
He told friends he would not change anything about his life.
There was big money in the giant business.
During his heyday in the 1970s, when he was the most famous wrestler in the world, a label he would surrender only to Hulk Hogan, Andre was earning an estimated $400,000 per year. He was an international celebrity.
He was a good enough athlete to have received a tryout offer from the Washington Redskins. Andre declined, apparently unwilling to take a pay cut.
Although he never lifted weights, his strength was awesome.
“I would say he was the strongest man in the world,” Valois said. “You won’t believe this, but one time a guy had a flat tire and (Andre) just lifted the car up while he changed the wheel. It wasn’t a big car, but still, it was a car.”
The Giant was never really tested. Some wondered how strong he could have been had he worked out.
As if it mattered.
“Maybe some weightlifter might have been able to pick up more above their heads,” Frenchy Bernard said. “but as far as picking something off the ground, the closest thing to him would have to be a forklift.”
Bernard, his hired hand, witnessed incredible feats on the ranch.
“One time I was having trouble with one of the cows. We were trying to put some stuff down her throat,” he said. “That cow weighed about 1,200 pounds. He put one arm around the cow’s head and neck and grabbed the post and hung onto her, no matter how hard she fought to get away. And I did what I had to do.”
Andre transcended the sometimes strange world of pro wrestling into the mainstream. He appeared on “The Tonight Show,” “The Six Million Dollar Man” and other shows.
He most cherished his performance as “Fezzik” the kindly giant in Rob Reiner’s 1987 film “The Princess Bride.”
Andre carried a videotape of the movie when he traveled.
On his November trip to Japan, a country in which he was worshiped, the Giant screened several showings of “The Princess Bride.”
“He loved that movie,” Funk said. “We’d watch it every third day. And everyone watched the movie. You didn’t say no.”
Andre was an anomaly in professional wrestling in that most of the incredible stories about him were true.
Yes, he really could pass a silver dollar through his ring.
While other wrestlers changed their names and concocted outlandish personal histories to hone their images, it was enough for Andre to walk into a ring in his wrestling briefs.
There were only a few myths.
One, Andre was never 7 feet 4, or close to it.
Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, claims the 7-4 figure was created in 1970 as a public relations gimmick to bill Andre as the tallest and biggest athlete in the world. At the time, basketball star Lew Alcindor, at 7-2, held that claim.
“At his tallest, (Andre) was probably around 6-10; maybe he could have been 6-11 before he ever made his mark in North America,” Meltzer writes in a recent tribute. “ . . . In a photo with 7-2 Wilt Chamberlain and Arnold Schwarzeneggar, taken when both were in Mexico City around 1984, Wilt appeared to have Andre by about three inches, although Wilt was barefooted in the photo while Andre was wearing thick heels.”
Andre appeared deceptively tall because he was proportioned so differently than any other 6-9 man, with relatively short legs, long torso and huge head. (Perhaps it was one reason why Andre never wore a hat).
It was also untrue that Andre was undefeated when he entered the ring for his battle against Hulk Hogan in Wrestlemania III before a crowd of 90,817 at the Pontiac Silverdome.
Memories are short in pro wrestling. Andre “lost” at least a few matches in previous incarnations to Europe and in North America.
Of course, “undefeated” always makes a better story line.
Perhaps the most apocryphal story about Andre was the one promoter Edouard Carpentier tried to sell when he introduced Andre to North America in 1971.
Carpentier claimed he was driving around in the French Alps when he came upon a huge redwood that had blocked the road.
Carpentier, a body-builder himself, could not budge the tree. But out of the woods came the biggest man he’d ever seen, Andre, who flicked the tree away like a twig.
Andre Rousimoff was born May 19, 1946, in Grenoble. His mother, father and four siblings were all normal sized. Andre reportedly inherited his giantism from his grandfather, who was said to be 7 feet 8.
When Andre left home at age 14 to seek his fortune, he was a large boy, but nothing extraordinary.
Legend has it that when Andre knocked on his family’s door five years later, his parents did not recognize him.
Valois, a wrestling champion in France in the 1960s, says Andre was about 16 when he started hanging around the local wrestling venues.
“I took him to the gym and he learned very fast,” said Valois, now 71 and living in Quebec.
Before he was Andre the Giant, he wrestled under the names Andre “The Butcher” Rousimoff, “Monster Eiffel Tower” and “The French Giant.”
Andre was “Monster Rousimoff” when he debuted in Japan in early 1970. He was never more popular than he was in Japan; witness his many return trips to the country, although he was always cast as a “heel” on wrestling cards overseas.
In America, Andre was most often sold as “baby face,” who tried to keep his temper in check. Ultimately he would lose it, of course, and make mince meat of his opponents.
Andre became “Andre the Giant” in 1973.
He had been wrestling in Montreal under the name Jean Ferre, but was so intimidating and overexposed that soon no one could develop a believable scenario in which he could be defeated.
So Valois set up a meeting with wrestling promoter Vince McMahon Sr., who changed Andre’s name and debuted him at Madison Square Garden. It began a 20-year run of one-night stands and worldwide acclaim.
In the ‘70s, Andre the Giant was on the road constantly, wrestling more than 300 days a year.
Wrestlers who challenged him, even in staged formats, genuinely feared him.
Funk, who estimates he wrestled him 15 times, said Andre could hurt you without trying. Wrestlers were grateful that The Giant was graceful enough to land very few accidental “potato” punches.
“I was scared to death. That’s the God’s honest truth,” Funk said.
Don Leo Jonathan, considered one of the most agile big men in wrestling, said he felt like a child in Andre’s presence.
“I was somewhere between his chest and his neck,” estimated Jonathan, whose real name is Don Heaton.
Stories of The Giant’s strength swept the wrestling world.
“I used to wrestle that bear they had going around,” said Heaton, now 61 and living in British Columbia, “ ‘cause I get along good with animals. When that bear had his arms out, well, you couldn’t move his arms. Andre was the same way. You didn’t move him or push him around. If you wanted to get around him, you walked around him.”
Barnstorming in Andre’s heyday was an experience in itself.
No one could out eat or drink him.
It was estimated he consumed 7,000 calories a day in alcohol alone, though friends insist he was not an alcoholic because Andre could stop drinking for months at a time.
Andre was a prodigious eater. Once, annoyed by what he perceived to be poor service at a restaurant, he ordered the entire menu and demanded that it be served one course at a time.
Heaton remembers his dinner with Andre in France.
He said it lasted from 11 a.m to 6 p.m. and that Andre ate seven courses, washing each down with a bottle of wine.
Andre’s table looked like Noah’s Ark. “Everything came in twos,” Heaton said, “two lobsters, two chickens, two steaks. . . .”
Although Andre spent perhaps years of his lifetime in bars, few were dumb enough to pick a fight with him.
Funk: “Who would want to irritate a giant?”
Andre, it was said, was not an obnoxious drinker and avoided trouble whenever possible.
There was, however, an incident in Quebec in the 1970s, when 15 bikers tried to take on The Giant.
“He did a number on them,” said Heaton, a witness. “All Andre had to do was hit ‘em once. He didn’t have to waste a lot of energy. He could hit a guy from three, four inches away. It was like someone jabbing you with a four-by-four. But I don’t even know if he was mad then.”
Andre’s body eventually turned on him. Remarkably agile for his size in his youth, he slowed considerably in the 1980s as his weight ballooned and his disease took hold.
In 1981, he broke his ankle in a match against Killer Khan. By the late 1980s he needed to wear a back brace when he wrestled.
Near the end, it was painful for the Bernards to watch him walk the stairs at his North Carolina home.
He smiled less, too.
“Andre was a real loner,” Big John Studd (John Minton) told the Pittsburgh Press shortly after The Giant’s death. “The last time I saw him, he was an angry man. I’d like to think the real Andre was the character he played in ‘The Princess Bride,’--a nice, big gentle guy.”
Andre wrestled his last match Dec. 4 in Japan.
A few days before, Terry Funk and his brother took The Giant out for lunch.
“I told my brother, ‘Hey, let’s pick up the meal,’ Funk recounted. “The tab was $900. He just ate what he normally ate.”
Although Andre was virtually immobile and bloated, Funk said The Giant’s last stand in Japan was not to be pitied.
“He had enough pride to move around as much as he could,” he said. “He was doing it because he loved it. It was very honorable. It was an honor that they brought him over. It was not a matter of seeing ‘Requiem For A Heavyweight.’ He was treated with honor and dignity.”
Friends of Andre are planning a memorial service at the Ellerbe ranch sometime later this month. Many wrestling contemporaries are expected to pay tribute.
Frenchy Bernard would not be be specific about a date for fear of attracting unwanted visitors.
Andre’s life might have seemed a circus.
But his death would not.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.