André The Giant Was A WWE Icon, But His Life Outside Of The Ring Was Terribly Tragic

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Renowned for his bouts with Hulk Hogan and performance in The Princess Bride, wrestler-turned-actor André the Giant sure lived up to his nickname. In fact, the Frenchman reportedly stood at a colossal 7’4” and weighed approximately 520 pounds when he rose to fame. Sadly, however, the imposing stature that helped him to crack America came at a cost.

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The man born André René Roussimoff was initially something of a mythical figure. Indeed, long before the days of going viral was a thing, André the Giant built his reputation on word of mouth, as news of his size gradually spread across the American wrestling circuit. As a result, thousands would flock to each of his encounters to see him in action with their very own eyes.

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André the Giant’s mammoth frame undoubtedly set him apart from the rest of his fellow wrestlers. And it was little surprise when the men of Tinseltown came calling with offers to put the big man on the big screen. However, André’s remarkable body would ultimately be responsible for his downfall, as well as his rise. Here’s a look at his incredible, yet often sad, life story.

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It soon became apparent to André’s immigrant parents that their son was different to their four other children. Indeed, before he had even reached his teens, André had grown to a whopping 6’3” and weighed 208 pounds. In fact, during his time on the family farm in the French town of Molien, he was able to carry out the workload of three men entirely on his own.

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André actually dropped out of high school in the eighth grade to concentrate on his farm laboring duties. He later started to learn carpentry and also found employment in a factory that produced hay bale machinery. But left unfulfilled by this manual work, André headed for the bright lights of Paris aged 18, where he started to pursue a career in wrestling.

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Working as a mover by day and training as a wrestler by night, André soon began to hit the sport’s local circuit. Nicknamed Géant Ferré, the star became an instant hit thanks to his distinctive frame and within a few years he was also showcasing his moves across Europe, Africa and Australia. But he achieved his biggest early success in Japan.

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Indeed, competing under the guise of Monster Roussimoff, André was crowned the tag-team champion with partner Michael Nador in Japan’s International Wrestling Enterprise. The icon also found fame in Canada, where he often helped to sell out shows at the Montreal Forum. However, by the early 1970s André the Giant’s size was no longer the must-see attraction it once was.

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Manager Frank Valois subsequently asked founder of the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) Vince McMahon Sr. for guidance; his advice was to reinvent the outsized athlete as a monstrous figure. The wrestling mogul was also responsible for christening the star André the Giant and helped to organize an intensive performing schedule that would help capitalize on such a persona as quickly as possible. And in 1973 André joined the WWWF himself.

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Starting as he meant to go on, André the Giant triumphed over Buddy Wolfe during his WWWF debut at Madison Square Garden in New York City. He then went an incredible 15 years without tasting defeat via submission or pinfall in the franchise. André also continued to compete across the world and in 1976 beat Chuck Wepner in a high-profile wrestler-versus-boxer encounter.

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In 1980 André the Giant became the number one nemesis of Hulk Hogan. And this intense rivalry between the pair would spawn some of the most iconic wrestling matches of the decade. Initially, André was portrayed as the hero while Hogan lived up his billing as the villain. But this wasn’t the only famous feud in which André was involved.

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Indeed, André also found an enemy in the shape of Killer Khan, a man dubbed The Mongolian Giant. The pair battled against each other several times in the early 1980s, including a memorable “stretcher match” at the Philadelphia Spectrum. Khan was also blamed for having broken André’s ankle during an encounter in Rochester. However, André had actually suffered the injury the previous morning while climbing from his bed.

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And then there was Big John Studd, a wrestler who claimed to be the sport’s “true giant.” Studd once cut off André’s hair after knocking him out during one particular tag-team battle. However, the Frenchman got his own back in 1985 when he defeated his nemesis at the inaugural WrestleMania in a body slam challenge.

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In 1986 André took a brief break from the wrestling world. He used this time to film his scenes for The Princess Bride movie, having been cast as the lovable giant Fezzik. The now-renamed World Wrestling Federation (WWF) explained his absence by suggesting that André had run scared of “unbeatable” tag-team partners King Kong Bundy and Big John Studd.

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On his return, André took on a new “secret” identity, The Giant Machine. This new alter ego competed alongside Roddy Piper’s Piper Machine and Hulk Hogan’s Hulk Machine in a new tag-team trio that were reported to be from Japan. But this new incarnation didn’t last long and by the end of the year André had returned to his more familiar moniker.

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However, this time around André the Giant had transformed into the villain of the piece. Indeed, the star had agreed to switch roles with his arch-rival Hulk Hogan and subsequently challenged him to fight for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship. Shortly before this high-profile battle, Hogan was humiliatingly thrown outside the ring during a 20-man battle royal.

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Sadly, André was in excruciating pain by the time the encounter came around. He’d recently undergone surgery to his back and was forced to sport a hidden brace while competing. He was also so heavy that Hogan claimed that the star must have been around 700 pounds, rather than the billed 520, when he carried out the “Bodyslam Heard Around the World.”

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André the Giant managed to get his revenge in 1988 when he took Hogan’s WWF World Heavyweight Championship Crown in a match billed as The Main Event. The pair also fought each other at WrestleMania IV, although they both ended up getting disqualified in the encounter. They also faced off in a tag-team battle at the very first SummerSlam, with Hogan and Randy Savage triumphing over André and Ted DiBiase.

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Jake “The Snake” Roberts would prove to be André’s next major foe. After learning of the Frenchman’s fear of reptiles, Roberts repeatedly taunted André with his beloved snake Damien. The pair’s rivalry came to a head at WrestleMania V where Roberts defeated André in a match refereed by another rival, Big John Studd.

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In his later WWF years, André teamed up with Haku to create The Colossal Connection. This new tag-team soon defeated champions Demolition and kept the title until the following year’s WrestleMania. However, by this point, André was barely able to move a muscle due to his ongoing health issues and Haku ended up doing all the work.

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After several false starts, André finally returned to action in 1991 when he competed with The Rockers in a six-man tag-team battle. He subsequently became involved in a major storyline in which he embarrassed several managers attempting to poach him as their client. His last notable appearance in the franchise came at that year’s SummerSlam when he stood on crutches at the ringside of a tag-team encounter featuring The Natural Disasters.

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André spent his final injury-stricken wrestling years competing in the Universal Wrestling Association in Mexico and the All Japan Pro Wrestling franchise. He eventually retired from the sport altogether in 1992. Of course, by this point the big man had also established himself as a TV and film favorite.

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In fact, André had made his acting debut way back in 1967 in a French movie about boxing. Nine years later he was cast as a Bigfoot for a two-episode stint on TV’s The Six Million Dollar Man. André went on to make a big small-screen impression with guest spots on The Greatest American Hero, The Fall Guy and B.J. and the Bear.

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André also branched out into cinema during the 1980s, appearing in Conan the Destroyer, Mick and Maude and The Princess Bride. The star very nearly stole the show in the last with his turn as Fezzik. And it was a performance of which
André was particularly proud. In fact, he reportedly made sure he always had a copy of the movie with him so then he could watch it at his leisure.

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As you’d expect from a man of his size, André the Giant’s alcohol tolerance was also gigantic. In fact, he was nicknamed the “Greatest Drunk on Earth” due to his claimed ability to drink a staggering 119 beers in just six hours. He reportedly even managed to consume 14 wine bottles entirely on his own before competing in his iconic WrestleMania III bout with Hulk Hogan.

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Sadly, the various health problems André suffered as a result of his stature eventually took their tragic toll. In 1993, the star passed away from congestive heart failure in a hotel room in Paris. André had only been in the city to attend the funeral of his Bulgarian father. André’s ashes were later flown back to America and scattered at his North Carolina ranch as he’d requested.

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André was survived by Robin Christensen, his only daughter. Christensen, whose mother Jean passed away in 2008, barely had any contact with her father. In fact, she only met him on five occasions in her entire life. Although she was happy to talk about André in her early years, she now allegedly refuses to do so.

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The wrestler posthumously returned to the spotlight in 2018 with a feature-length documentary screened on the HBO channel. Directed by Jason Hehir, André the Giant detailed his eventful career and the battle with the condition that plagued his everyday life. Indeed, the star suffered from acromegaly, a growth hormone disorder which André first discovered he had in his 20s while wrestling in Japan.

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Symptoms can include the enlargement of the forehead, feet and hands, pain in the joints, vision problems and headaches. High blood pressure, sleep apnea and Type 2 diabetes are just a few of the complications that can arise from the condition. It’s typically caused by a benign tumor producing too many hormones in the brain’s pituitary gland.

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And André the Giant isn’t the only professional wrestler to have suffered from the condition, either. Big Show, aka Paul Wight and the man once hailed as the son of André, was also diagnosed with acromegaly. But unlike the Frenchman, he opted to undergo pituitary gland surgery, which has helped keep the disorder at bay.

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In a revealing interview featured in the HBO documentary, André discusses why he refused to undergo the brain tumor surgery which may have helped to prolong his short life. He says, “I am not supernatural. I’m just myself. So, what God gave me, I use it to make a living.”

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The documentary also reveals the various difficulties André faced due to the condition. For instance, if the star was caught short during a flight, then he didn’t have the option of using the aircraft’s lavatory. Instead – and rather humiliatingly – he had to urinate in a bucket while being covered by a curtain.

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Referring to André’s 1984 appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, filmmaker Hehir told the New York Post newspaper, “They had this special chair for him, but it was still undersized. And when he came out, people were laughing before he even spoke. Nothing was the size he ever needed it to be.”

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Indeed, even the most basic of tasks became mountainous due to André’s size. Hehir continued, “He was on the road for most of his life, and it’s not like they had oversize planes, buses, cars and hotel rooms, especially in the ’70s or ’80s. They told me he couldn’t dial a phone. He used to put a pencil in the holes of the rotary phone.”

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And although André’s drinking habits have become the stuff of legend, Hehir was keen to point out that they were essentially a coping mechanism for the severe physical and emotional pain in which the star found himself. The filmmaker added, “When people [remember] the bathroom stuff and his drinking, they discuss it in a humorous way. But if you think of it on a deeper level, it’s really sad and poignant.”

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Although André’s condition is not a matter of debate, Hehir claims that the star might not have been quite as gargantuan as everybody believes. Indeed, the star very rarely visited the doctor and there are few official records from the early days of wrestling. Hehir says, “That part of the mythology dies with him. We know 7’4” is exaggerated. There are certain questions we can never know the answer to.”

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Although André’s story undoubtedly ends in a tragic way, Hehir would ideally like audiences to feel uplifted by it overall. The filmmaker told the New York Post, “He [André] was dealt a pretty bad hand. And he made it into something people could enjoy all around the world for decades.”

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And André wasn’t averse to enjoying one of the few perks of the condition, an incredible amount of strength. In fact, the icon would often play pranks on his friends by moving their parked vehicles with his bare hands while on a drunken night out. And André didn’t have to hit the gym to achieve such a feat either.

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Hehir also told Men’s Health magazine how many bodybuilders aspired to André’s type of strength. He said, “One of the clips from 60 Minutes [a TV show featured in the documentary]… is a story about steroids in the 1980s, right when steroids were coming into the news cycle. And they used André as an example of natural strength. What steroid abusers and now HGH users are going for… was actually the disorder that André had.”

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The director continued, “I don’t know if he knew [how much he could lift]. There wasn’t a lot of quantifiable evidence of how tall he was, what he weighed or what he could actually lift, because this was not a guy who saw a day in a public gym in his entire life… He wasn’t a guy who worked out.”

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In addition to the HBO documentary, André’s fascinating life story has also been covered in comic book form. In 2014, cartoonist Box Brown paid tribute to the icon with an illustrated biography, André the Giant: Life and Legend, which addressed his battle with acromegaly. Brown told the New York Times, “I would like to think that, if a wrestler or someone who knew him picked the book up, they would see that it’s coming from a place of respect.”

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