Andre the Giant: The Life & Legacy of the 8th Wonder of the World

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Most generations grew up with myths, legends, and fairy tales. These fantastical stories are full of mythical creatures such as dragons, goblins, heroes, and monsters. And then there are giants. For Eons, we have listened to stories of a hero trying to conquer a mythical giant. But if you grew up in the 80s, you experienced one of these myths come to life. But this wasn’t a legend. It was real. And not only was it real, but this character was an enormous part of 1980s pop culture.

Like many other kids during the golden age of professional wrestling, I was obsessed with what was then the WWF. Every week, here in Canada, we had superstars of wrestling. Even before we had a VCR, my dad would record the audio onto a cassette of Saturday Nights’ Main Event. I was too young to stay up, but this still allowed me to keep up with everything. I loved Hulk Hogan and all the characters that seemed like they were out of the pages of a comic book. They were all larger than life. And one, in particular, was literally and figuratively larger than life–Andre the Giant. I was equal parts astonished and genuinely frightened of him. I couldn’t believe a human being like this actually existed. 

His career spanned decades, but it was in the 80s when he really shined.

The Origins of Andre the Giant

But let’s go back to the origins of this mythical person. Andre Rene Roussimoff was born on May 19, 1946, in Grenoble, France. He was the son of Boris and Mariann Roussimoff, who owned a farm in the small village of Molien. Andre was born with a rare condition called gigantism, which caused his body to continue growing throughout his life.

As a child, Andre’s size made him stand out from his peers. By the age of 12, he was already over 6 feet tall and weighed over 200 pounds. School was difficult, and he was often teased and bullied by other children because of his size.

Despite these challenges, Andre still played sports, including sorcery and Rugby. But when he was around 17, he really started growing. Despite these rapid changes, he kept up his training for rugby, and this is when he was first introduced to wrestling. Also attending his gym were several wrestlers. They all got to know each other and showed Andre some of the basics on how to wrestle. One day, a regular was hurt, and they asked Andre to fill in. And this is when the journey began.

His Wrestling Career Begins

Andre was looking for a ticket out of the family farm. Maybe this wrestling thing could give him the life he dreamed of. At this point, Andre was around 19 years old and is now about 6’10 and over 300 pounds. He obviously stood out. As big as he was, he was still incredibly athletic and could pull off the moves of the smaller wrestlers. It would not be hard to promote him. But what would they call this athletic giant? 

In France, there is the legend of a giant folk hero lumberjack from the middle ages called Grand Ferre. Andre Russimoff was promoted as a giant lumberjack named Jean Ferré that had been7 discovered in the woods. 

Andre began to wrestle around Paris, billed as le geant Ferre. The Giant Ferre. Now, at 7’1 and 376 pounds, word started to spread about this unique individual. This took him to Monaco. And then to Japan, where he was called Monster Russimoff. And it didn’t take long to get him to North America. In the early 70s, Andres’ first professional wrestling match in North America actually took place here in Canada, just outside Montreal. 

Now, Andre was promoted as a giant from the French Alps. But the name was still a work in progress. Some billed him as the Friendly French Giant. Now I’d like to see a fight between Andre the Giant and The Friendly Giant. Canadians will know who the Friendly Giant is. 

But despite still being called The Giant Jean Ferre, the myth of a giant wrestler soon grew and towns all over wanted to see him in person. Here’s a quick lesson on the state of the professional wrestling industry back then. North America was divided up into 20-plus territories, including such promotions as the National Wrestling Alliance, Georgia Championship Wrestling, Mid Atlantic Championship wrestling out of Charlotte, and Stampede Wrestling up here in Canada. There was also the worldwide Wrestling Federation or WWWF up in New York. We’ll get back to them in a bit. 

Each territory had its own promoter and local stars. And those performers stayed within their own territories. You had local television coverage, but there was nothing national, so the only way to see wrestling was in your specific area. But for Andre, he was perfect as a traveling road show, if you will. Everyone wanted to pay to get a glimpse, but once they had, he could move on to a new territory and keep the word of mouth growing. There was no cable back then, no internet, just some wrestling magazines that extolled the virtues of this real-life giant.

Probably most importantly, word of mouth did all the marketing for him. His hype preceded him everywhere he went, but the arrival of the giant lived up to the hype. Whether he was called Andre the Giant Frenchmen or Jean Ferre, he was the definition of an attraction. But up in Chicago, the promoter didn’t think the name Giant Ferre sounded all that imposing. His real name is Andre–why not just call him Andre the Giant? 

Back in New York, Vincent James McMahon Sr. heard about this giant making the rounds in Canada and saw a tremendous opportunity. McMahon and Andre came to an agreement where McMahon would book and promote him, lending him out to other territories. But McMahon Sr took a new approach. He marketed and promoted Andre like the attraction he was. Video segments would play up his enormous size and Andre showed off unique feats of strength.

 It’s important to remember that professional wrestling has its origins as a circus sideshow. Those old circuses focused on promotion, hype, and spectacle for all the attractions and that aspect has continued to stay with professional wrestling to this day. Vince Sr. emphasized the point that Andre the Giant was a unique attraction. Now, the myth and legend of Andre was taking on a life of its own. 

The World of Pro Wrestling is About to Change…

But at the same time, things were changing in the wrestling world. Vince McMahon senior was about to sell his worldwide wrestling federation territory to his son Vince McMahon Jr. But Vince Jr. had other plans. He wanted to go head-to-head with the territories. This hadn’t been done before and really wasn’t possible with the state of TV back then. But with the growth of cable tv, they could now broadcast what was now called the World Wrestling Federation–or WWF–across the country. 

Vince believed he had a better product–as he had brought in stars from other territories–and wanted the entire country to see. Cable tv made this possible. Now, his territory in the northeast could be seen in Atlanta, or the mid-west. This went against the code of staying in your territory and infuriated the other promotors. McMahon says that if his father had known of his plans, he never would have sold him the territory

Vince jr was confident in his product as the WWF was also built around a 6 foot 8 blonde wrestler named Terry Gene Bollea, better known as Hulk Hogan. Built on the back of Hogan, cable TV, and their partnership with MTV, professional wrestling exploded in the 80s. It was mainstream and included celebrities. This early boom resulted in the creation of the first Wrestlemania. Considered a make-or-break event at the time, Wrestlemania was an enormous success and helped propel the WWF to even loftier heights.

And Andre the Giant continued to play a pivotal role. In 1985, at the first WrestleMania, Andre competed against Big John Studd in a body slam match with the winner receiving 10,000. All of which Andre began throwing into the crowd before it was stolen by Bobby the Brian Heenan. At WrestleMania 2, Andre competed in an all-star Battle Royal featuring NFL players including the iconic Wiliam the refrigerator Perry.

Andre was a cornerstone of the WWF and was a major draw, whether it be on a weekly show, Saturday Night’s Main Event, or a big PayPerView like the Survivor Series. Throughout this entire time period, Andre ran the show and kept everyone in line. The thing is if Andre didn’t want to lose–he wouldn’t. Yes, professional wrestling matches are predetermined, but a lot of what happens in the ring is called on the spot. There is a lot of improv and reading the crowd to determine the flow and direction of a match.

When it came time for the finish of a match, if Andre didn’t feel like putting someone over, which is wrestle-speak for losing to them, He simply wouldn’t. And there was nothing the other person could do about it. If Andre didn’t like you, then heaven help you in the ring. Andre was billed as being undefeated for 15 straight years. 

But building on the back of Hulk Hogan, professional wrestling, and Hulkamania, were reaching heights that didn’t seem possible for the industry. 

By the mid-80s, Andre had already been wrestling for nearly twenty years. All the matches, travel, and the fact his body continued to grow were beginning to cause a physical toll. His joints and tendons couldn’t keep up with the continuous growth, and Andre suffered from severe back and joint pain. Even walking around was troublesome. It might be time for him to step away, but before he did that, it was important for Andre that he pass the torch to a new generation. And this would lead to the biggest wrestling event the world had ever seen

WrestleMania 3

As we cross the midway point of the 1980s, Hulk Hogan and the WWF are on top of the world. But from a storyline aspect, there wasn’t much more he could accomplish. He was the heavyweight champion and had defeated all his opponents. But what if there was one opponent that was undefeated and was so big and strong that not even Hulk Hogan himself could stop him?

This was the set up for WrestleMania 3, where Hogan would put the championship up against the 15-year undefeated streak of the already mythical Andre the Giant. But how would this go? It seemed impossible for either superstar to lose. You had the irresistible force up against the immovable object. It almost seemed like real life and like a major sporting event. And this dynamic captured the interest of a lot of people, 9-year-old me included. Held on march 29th 1987,  at the Silverdome in pontic Michigan, WrestleMania 3–at the time–was the largest indoor crowd ever in North America.

Leading up to the show, Andre was in bad shape and had trouble walking. How would he pull this off? Hogan, up to the day of the show, still didn’t know what the result of the match would be. He didn’t know if Andre was putting him over or if was going to lose. Remember, if Andre wanted the match to go his way, there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it. Vince McMahon assured him that Andre would do the right thing, but As Hogan walked to the ring that night in front of 93, 173 people, he had no idea what he was walking into. Andre, however, knew this was a pivotal moment in the history of sports entertainment. He had always been the marquee performer, but he saw that the industry was changing, and Hogan was leading that change.

Despite his physical limitations, Andre was still able to perform and picked up, and threw around Hogan like he was nothing. Keep in mind, Hogan was somewhere in the 6 foot 7, 300-pound range. Traditionally in pro wrestling matches, the bad guy, or the heel, calls the match. They dictate the pace and call out the sequence of moves. After turning on Hogan a few months prior, Andre was billed as the bad guy in this match, so he called out the moves or spots. As Hogan tells it, later in the match he managed to knock Andre off his feet. That didn’t happen a lot. 

As both of them were getting up, he hears Andre call “slam!” This is a bodyslam where you have to pick your opponent up completely off the ground and slam them down on their back onto the mat. Hogan wasn’t expecting this call, but managed to do what was billed as the impossible and slammed Andre the giant. 

As Hogan is slamming him down, he hears Andre call “leg drop!” The leg drop is Hogans’s finishing move, meaning once he hits it, the opponent can’t get up, the ref counts three, and the match is over. Hogan hits the leg drop, thinking Andre is going to kick out. But he doesn’t. The match is over. The hero defeated the giant. Hogan had done the impossible. 

As a 9-year-old kid. I was beside myself. Hogan was my hero and conquered the giant. Not only that, he body slammed Andre the Giant. This was something we hadn’t seen before and didn’t think was humanly possible. In reality, Andre had been slammed several times before, including by Hogan himself. But in the storyline the WWF told back then–and with no ability to look up videos on YouTube–Andre was billed as never being slammed. Hogan also claims to have torn both biceps and part of his back while slamming the giant that night. 

But all of this was immaterial. What Andre the Giant did that night in Michigan was pass the torch on to Hogan–and the new generation of professional wrestling. His decision to lose–and put Hogan in over in the way that he did–showed he cared about the business. Andre knew this was what the industry needed to reach the next level. Hogan was carrying pro wrestling on his back, and by defeating Andre the Giant, he had reached the top of the mountain. 

How Big Was Andre the Giant, Really?

Throughout all of this, Andre continued to grow. It was discovered he had a condition called acromegaly, which is when the pituitary gland continues to secrete growth hormone. It also contributes to the distinctive facial appearance of Andre. So, how big was Andre, really? Professional wrestling tends to exaggerate things, and he was listed as 7’4 and even up to 7’5. In TV promotions, Vince McMahon would have Andre stand on a step to make him appear even bigger–as if that was really necessary. In reality, he was probably more in the 7-foot region, give or take an inch or two.

There’s a famous picture from 1983 of Arnold Schwarzenegger standing between Andre and Wilt Chamberlain. Chamberlain has been listed as around 7’1 and looks to have a few inches on Andre, but Andres’s head is a bit bent over. Either way, he was in that seven-foot range and Schwarzenegger looks like a hand puppet between the two of them. Andre wore a size 22 shoe. It would take three average fingers to fill one of his rings–with room to spare. You could put a silver dollar through his ring. His gigantic hands were similar in size to that of a low-land gorilla. He could close his hand right around a 12-oz beer can. We’ll get to his legendary drinking stories in a moment…

In the mid-80s, Andre was often listed as anywhere from  520 to 560 pounds. Which may not have been far off. He was, after all, continuing to grow. In 1985, there was a famous match between him and King Kong Bundy called the Colossal Jostle. Bundy–whose real name was Christopher–was listed in the 450-pound region. I met King Kong Bundy up close years ago, and he was legitimately bigger than a refrigerator. I didn’t know a human being could be this big. It was an outdoor event, and He actually seemed to block out the sun. Bundy was in the 6 ‘4 region but in this match with the giant, he absolutely pales in comparison size-wise. Side note: As a kid, I was terrified of–and hated–King Kong Bundy, but honestly, nicest guy in the world. 

One other frame of reference I personally have to understand the sheer size of this human being is in comparison to another wrestling legend, Hacksaw Jim Duggan. I also was lucky to once meet Hacksaw, who has been billed at around at least 6’3, and 270 pounds. And he was also gigantic in person. In his matches with Andre, Duggan looks minuscule in comparison. He looks like a little kid. 

But with this great size came great discomfort and inconvenience, as Andre just couldn’t navigate through life like you or I. When You’re 7 feet or more and over 500 pounds, the world is not built for you. Andre could not fit in most cars. Or hotel room beds, or bathrooms. When he flew, he often had to use two to three seats just to fit. When your career is based around travel, this couldn’t have been easy. Throughout his career, Andre continued to be a big draw in Japan and would constantly make the 14-hour trip over during which he couldn’t use the airplane bathrooms as he couldn’t fit in them. 

In a pre-cell phone age, Andre couldn’t fit in a phone booth. And most phones couldn’t handle his gigantic hands, which made dialing a rotary phone nearly impossible. Kids, ask your parents what those were. His fingers were so big it was even hard to dial on a keypad, and there was no mashing the keypad with your palm to order a special dialing wand. 

He was obviously stared at wherever he went. Someone of that size will always draw attention, let alone when you’re Andre the Giant. People would actually mock and insult him. Andre simply couldn’t hide and said that he wishes he could have one day a week where he could be a normal size. He yearned to go to movies or theatres but was not only too big for the seats, but would block everyone’s view. As famous as he was, being a famous giant came with a lot of troubles. 

Andre the Giant’s Legendary Drinking Stories

But when you’re this size, you can obviously consume a lot. Food-wise, he is said to have eaten 16 steaks and 12 lobsters in one sitting. And we can’t discuss Andre the Giant without mentioning his legendary drinking stories. Some say he was able to metabolize alcohol differently from the average person, but based on his size and activity level, he could consume–A lot. Ric Flair tells the story of seeing him drink 106 beers in one sitting. He would often drink an entire case of wine in a single day. 

Andre would routinely drink two bottles of cognac or 6 bottles of wine before a wrestling match. The late great Dusty Rhodes tells of the night Andre drank 156 beers. Andre, in an interview with David Letterman, makes mention of 117 beers. But these could have been two different nights. But even on that lower end, we’re talking about nearly 14 GALLONS of beer. Let’s even be conservative and call it 10 gallons. That’s still over 37 liters of beer.

For you and I, our stomachs can hold at the most, 2 to 4 liters. An article in the New York Post tells the story of Andre in Kansas City. It was last call and Andre ordered 40 Vodka tonics. Four-zero. These were basically like shots for him and he stayed till 5 in the morning polishing them off. 

One more? James Morris, better known as Hillbilly Jim, tells the story of Andre drinking 48 mini bottles of liquor on a single airplane flight. Even though they are small, that’s still 80 ounces or two and a half liters of alcohol. That’s 5 pint glasses. And all consumed On a morning flight, which was only about 2 hours long. He drank all the liquor for the entire plane. 

Ok, one more drinking story. Former wrestler Ken Patera tells the story of someone actually challenging Andre to a beer-drinking contest to see who could drink the most in an hour. Big mistake. The bartender on duty kept all the bottle caps as the contest went to keep track–which had now stretched later into the night. His opponent managed to consume around 40 beers. Andre finished 116. And then went to wrestle that night. 

The Princess Bride

During the 1980s, Andre was everywhere. It wasn’t just the world of professional wrestling where he made a big splash, but in all aspects of pop culture, and that meant appearing in one of the most beloved movies of all time.

The Princess Bride is one of those classic fairytale stories that involve heroes, pirates, goblins, and a giant. Released on September 25th, 1987, director Rob Reiner created something very special and timeless. It stars Fred Savage and Peter Falk as the grandson and grandfather, Cary Elwes as Westley or the man in Blank, Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya, Robin Wright as ButterCup, and Billy Crystal as Miracle Max. But when it came to casting the role of Fezzik, the giant, there was only one person in mind.

The Princess Bride is based on a book of the same name. Released in 1973, author William Goldman always had Andre in mind for the role of Fezzik. But when it came time to cast and film the movie, Andre was such a worldwide attraction that it didn’t look possible. They almost went with Goldman’s second choice, a bodybuilder turned actor who was starting to get some big traction in Hollywood: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Eventually, Andre became available and shooting began in late 1986. This was a tough time for Andre, as his injuries were really catching up with him. He had such significant back problems that in the scene where he has to catch Robin Wright, they actually had to have her supported with wires as to not hurt him. Andre had gone from body-slamming behemoths like King Kong Bundy and Big John Studd and now could barely hold this rather petite human being.

This is what makes what he did at WrestleMania 3 even more remarkable. He knew what a seminal event and moment it was in the history of professional wrestling and worked through the pain to not only perform but to also throw around a 300-pound Hulk Hogan like he was nothing. 

The success of the Princess Bride exposed Andre to an even bigger audience. It wasn’t a colossal hit in the vein of Star Wars, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, or other 1980s staples, but was still a big hit and a critical success. The Princess Bride made 30 million at the box office or about 80 million in today’s money. Not Marvel territory, but pretty good for a romantic fairytale comedy that we hadn’t really seen before. It was hard to put it into a specific genre, but audiences eventually found out how unique and great it was. Word-of-mouth helped in the success of The Princess Bride, and it found continued success long after its original theatrical run. 

Andre was incredibly proud of the Princess Bride and carried around VHS copies to make people watch it every chance he could. But the legacy of the Princess Bride–like Andre himself–continues on to this day. 

The Later Stages of Andre’s Life

As the 80s come to a close, we, unfortunately, get to the later stages of life for Andre the Giant His mobility was extremely limited, and any wrestling matches had to be based around his limitations. He usually only competed in tag team matches where he could stand outside the ring and support himself on the ropes. He needed canes and crutches to get around and was in tremendous pain. Going into the 90s, the industry that Andre helped elevate had moved on.

Andre still made some public appearances, but that was as much as he could handle. His last television appearance in North America was on September 2, 1992, in Atlanta at Clash of the Champions. His last official match would be in December 1992 in Japan. 

In 1993, he returned to France to visit his ill father. He spent time with friends and family, but it was clear his health was failing him. Andre Rousimoff passed away on January 27th, 1993 in Paris. He was 46 years old. Even at the end, he was still growing, and his heart just couldn’t take it anymore. 

In the world of professional wrestling, Andre the Giant remains a cornerstone of the entire industry. The WWE Hall of Fame began with Andre the Giant. He was the reason it was created, and he was the very first inductee. His reach spanned well beyond that of just professional wrestling. People from all around the world–whether they liked the WWF or not–became aware of this larger-than-life figure. His inclusion in the Princess Bride also solidified him as a key part of 1980s pop culture.

The Legacy of Andre the Giant

Andre the Giant–the 8th wonder of the world–was larger than life in every aspect. He was the legend and myth come to life. He captivated audiences around the world and was a key cornerstone to take pro wrestling from wrasslin, to sports entertainment. His match at Wrestlemania 3 is still considered the pinnacle moment in the history of the industry. As it’s been said, Andre did sports entertainment before there was sports entertainment. Andre was critical in the change in direction for what has gone on to become a multi-multi-billion dollar industry. 

He had a difficult and painful life, but also entertained millions. More realistically, it was probably hundreds of millions, as this was a time when the reach of media and entertainment–especially with professional wrestling–was reaching all corners of the globe. Andre Rousimoff–or Andre the giant as he will forever be known– helped to make that all possible.

Like giants and mythical figures from stories and fairytales, the legend of Andre Rousimoff continues on to this day. He was a real-life giant that now has his very own mythology.