From the Ring to OBEY: The Outsized Life of Andre the Giant
April 10, 2018
When Andre the Giant fought Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania III in the Pontiac Silverdome just outside Detroit in 1987, the 7-foot, 400-pound man had to be carried to and from the ring on a cart. Andre suffered from acromegaly, an endocrinological disorder that causes the body to produce too much growth hormone and can result in gigantism. Walking had become too difficult. He had to prop himself up on the ring ropes just to ease the pain of standing up.
Maybe that’s why he forever changed the wrestling industry that night. He put forth a valiant effort so the fans could see their dream match. He fought, even if it hurt. Toward the end of the match, he let Hogan bodyslam him despite the toll it would take on his body. (The two wrestlers had agreed, ahead of the match, that the unstoppable behemoth would lose.)
Andre’s performance that day at WrestleMania is one of the key moments in HBO and WWE’s new film Andre the Giant, an affecting, emotional portrait of a complicated pop cultural figure. But it is one of the only actual matches that appears. This might be shocking considering the film is about an iconic wrestler. But Bill Simmons, the executive producer, tells me that the documentary was more so an examination of a man.
“I just wasn’t interested in the specifics of rehashing all his matches throughout the years,” Simmons says. Rather, the documentary was meant to be “more of an examination of what it’s like to go through life as a guy in a world that’s not made for you, and more of an exploration of the human condition than a collection of archival wrestling highlights.”
Fitting for a man whose face might be best known today as the symbol of the OBEY clothing brand and who might be better remembered as an actor than as a wrestler.
In 1989, Shepard Fairey created the “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” stickers, which became an instant classic among skaters and hip-hop types around the world. The sticker would inform OBEY’s visual style for years, with Andre’s recognizable visage becoming the brand’s logo.
But beyond his image, Andre was a man—a man who struggled to live every second of his life. Outside of his ranch in North Carolina, which he purchased because North Carolina reminded him of his village in France, his gigantic frame had very little room to breathe.
He was born May 19, 1946, in Moliens, France, and was by all accounts a normal child. But at the age of 12, he started showing signs of gigantism.
His size (he was seven feet tall by the time he was 17) made professional wrestling a natural fit. He eventually caught the attention of Vince McMahon Sr. and his son Vince Jr., the owners of what is now known as WWE.
Andre was already a household name with fans of professional wrestling when he joined WWE in 1973, but it was Vince Jr. who made him an international superstar. By the time of his passing in 1993, Andre had become the subject of Hollywood curiosity, appearing as the friendly giant in the movie The Princess Bride and as more-menacing characters in episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man, The Greatest American Hero and B.J. and the Bear.
He was so extraordinary in size that the world was incapable of accommodating him. He couldn’t go unnoticed in public places, even with a disguise, because of his height.
“People would not leave him alone,” the wrestling legend Ric Flair says midway through the movie. Airplane bathrooms were too small, so on long flights, Andre would have to pee in a bucket. “There was no level of comfort,” WWE announcer Jerry Lawler says.
Andre’s size helped him travel around the world, and when he did, he was portrayed as a kindly brute. He was the perfect fit for an era of people obsessed with carnival sideshows. As the wrestling industry blossomed, Andre’s act became the focal point of entertainment. He charmed in his promotional interviews; he’d show off the size of his rings or cover up a man’s entire face with his colossal hands. He was a pure physical marvel who anyone could understand, appreciate and be in awe of.
In researching Andre, the filmmakers combed through piles and piles of apocrypha and tall tales. Director Jason Hehir (who also helmed 30 for 30’s The Fab Five documentary) tells me he found a number of stories in need of fact-checking, such as the account of Andre having to defecate in hotel bathtubs because he was too large for the toilets and doctors using veterinary tools to operate on his back in 1986. So during the researching and editing process, there was a high burden of proof. “If, in an interview, someone says, ‘Well, I heard he drank 150 beers one time’—Well, were you there?” Hehir says. “If they weren’t there, it’s not gonna get in.”
Simmons says that he had wanted to make a documentary about Andre’s life since the first run of 30 for 30 documentaries in 2009 and 2010, when he was still at ESPN. But WWE was hesitant to sign off on the project, rendering it impossible to make. McMahon’s company owned the rights to most of the important footage. When Simmons landed at HBO in 2016, WWE softened its stance. “I think Vince is a little older and ready to tell the story,” Simmons surmises. “[Andre’s life and death is] pretty painful for him.”
Once WWE was on board, Hehir was Simmons’ first choice for director. The two had worked together on four 30 for 30 installments already. Plus, Hehir had a specific vision for the project, even if he confessed to not being much of a wrestling fan.
According to Hehir, Simmons was crucial in refining the narrative in the edit room and keeping the film moving along at a brisk pace. Simmons says of his process: “The best way to help somebody [with a documentary edit] is: ‘What’s the story, did you stick with it? What’s the ‘B’-story?’ And then, ‘Did parts drag as you tried to follow the trail of those two purposes?’ And that’s the hardest thing to get to with people. There’s give-and-take and stuff, but they have to see it, because it’s their doc. That’s when you have to be a sounding board.”
In a film packed with interviews with A-listers who knew and speak wistfully of Andre, McMahon’s is particularly touching, expressing his personal regrets about not mending fences after Andre was let go from WWE in the early ’90s.
Hogan’s reverence for Andre is palpable in his interview. “He was stronger than all of us. He was bigger than all of us. He kept us in line,” Hogan says.
“I was expecting the interview to go a half-hour, 45 minutes,” Hehir recalls of his meeting with Hogan. “We sat for over three hours. He laughed, he cried, he ran the gamut of emotions.”
Andre’s daughter, Robin, paints a slightly different picture than those in his wrestling family. To her, Andre was an absentee father, choosing to spend his time on the road making towns rather than spending time with her. Hehir says Robin’s interview led him to excise an interview of Vince’s daughter and WWE Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon from the film despite Stephanie’s deep kinship with Andre. He felt it would be unfair to Robin’s story to include Stephanie, who painted a far warmer, more paternal picture of a troubled man.
Stephanie’s memories were almost too rosy as to not be contradictory. “I know she went out to dinner with him a couple of times and was her buddy when she would see him, but I doubt he was a best friend in that she could pick up the phone and tell him about her day in fourth grade.”
He wasn’t a man that easy to put into words. Like his vocation.
When done properly, professional wrestling is a story told with few words. The moments leading up to a match might be defined by sweaty soliloquies and icy threats, but the true beating heart of the wrestling business is wrestling: two (or more) human beings conveying drama through facial expressions, body positioning and back-breaking falls, with no dialogue to fall back on, no shortcuts to take.
Andre’s body was both his gift and his curse. He was able to shock and amaze fans just with his mere presence. But he also had the ability to charm them with a smile, a wink or a throaty laugh, often forced through the agony of a body out of control.
And that’s why we’ll remember him for what he was that night in Detroit—so much more so than for the OBEY stickers or the Princess Bride reruns or the award they now give out in his honor to the winner of a Battle Royal at WrestleMania. Andre’s enduring legacy is the man who could entertain millions while enduring the kind of suffering none of them could begin to imagine.