Legends never die. Their legacy lives on long after their human form takes its final breath.
From his storied consumption of alcohol to his rumbling flatulence that brought grown men to tears, the fable and folklore surrounding Andre the Giant grows bigger than the man himself with each passing year.
Andre The Giant, a documentary examining the life and career of the beloved WWE legend, premieres tonight on HBO. The feature-length film combines never-before-seen footage of the 7’4 giant among men along with revealing interviews with former in-ring rivals, close friends and surviving members of Andre’s family.
Inside the ring, Andre was a force. The immovable object who could have his way physically with any opponent. Behind the curtain, Andre was a quiet and gentle giant dealing with the constant stares, ridicule, and issues that come with living in a world not built for a man his size.
Emmy-winning director and producer Jason Hehir sat down to discuss the project, the extensive research that went into making the film and separating fact from fiction in a business built on selling lies.
Andre, the Giant’s popularity went well beyond sports. Is it hard to cover such an iconic figure?
I’m not a huge wrestling fan so it wouldn’t have appealed to me if his story ended inside the ring and there was no interesting story outside the ring. I’m much more interested in the story, specifically as it deals with icons. I’m interested in what it’s like to walk through the world with that many eyeballs on you and what it does to your psyche as you walk through the world. This guy had it on two levels, he was extremely popular around the world and even if he wanted to hide he was physically unable. What’s it like to traverse a world that obviously wasn’t made for a man like him?
It was fun to talk to the people who truly knew him. This was in an effort to demythologize him. I looked at this as more of a study of Andre Roussimoff, the person and not Andre the Giant the character. The amount of research and time invested in this project was part of the fun and appeal. From day one, the WWE was incredibly cooperative. My producers went through thousands of hours of footage the WWE gave us of Andre. I knew who Andre was, and I knew the big moments of his life, but this was a film I went into blind. I think the movie is better for it.
You have to focus on some wrestling but is this more about the backstory of Andre?
Bill Simmons is the executive producer of this project, and he’s such a rabid wrestling fan that I was afraid he’d want to concentrate solely on the wrestling aspect of Andre’s life and the beats of Andre’s career. Those were the details I wasn’t interested in because they’re not “real” sporting event despite the fact that these men are tremendous athletes the outcome is predetermined so I wasn’t interested in heavyweight titles or who Andre beat in the Garden at specific events. As a sports filmmaker, wrestling lacks that intense drama that comes with the unknown outcome of actual sporting events. In wrestling, the drama is scripted. Andre had been through enough in life outside the ring to create an exciting story, especially his childhood and the way he came to America after professionally conquering Japan and Canada.
The B-story of the film is the evolution of professional wrestling and a focus on satellite TV and the rise of cable television and Vince McMahon and the WWF. The documentary is a study of Andre and the people and places in his orbit during his career.
What was something you were surprised to learn about Andre?
I was fascinated by the littlest facts about Andre’s life and career like how his name “Andre the Giant” came to pass. His first in-ring name was Jean Furrey. When a promoter in the states asked what the name meant, he was told it translated to “giant fairy.” The promoter refused to bill him as the giant fairy and asked his real name and decided to bill him as Andre the Giant.
I was also surprised at how much of the mythology out there is false. Andre wasn’t born in Grenoble, France. Grenoble became Andre’s defacto hometown because the town gained recognition in the late 1960s after the town hosted the Winter Olympics. US audiences wouldn’t know where La Mole, France is his birthplace. Grenoble was easier for American audiences to digest.
Andre himself perpetuated much of the mythology. He never broke character. Until the day he died, he would never acknowledge that wrestling was fake or scripted. He was fiercely loyal to the business and that’s why so many performers had such admiration for him.
I feel that the amount of false information out there also speaks to people believing anything about the man. It was a fun exercise as a producer. Normally, for a documentary, I could just read a book for the facts and first-hand accounts and conduct interviews based on those facts. There was a ton of private detective work involved, which isn’t normal for films about athletes. There was a lot of rolling up our sleeves and doing the job to get to the truth.
For this film, we had to go door-to-door. We went to the village were Andre grew up. The town has about 40 people and a handful of houses. We went with a stack of photos and dug for any info we could find about Andre’s childhood.
Oddly, we found some of the people in the images we were holding. We sniffed out two of Andre’s brothers, his older brother, and younger brother. The people in the village told us where to find his younger brother, in a local pub he frequented. People in the pub said we just missed him and then gave us his address. So we bought two bottles of wine and knocked on the door, and the translator asked if they could interview him. He agreed and took us inside the family home, and there was a treasure trove of photos, programs and fliers stacked in the house.
What did Andre do before wrestling?
He began training to wrestle at the age of 19 doing what was called “catch” or “le catch,” in French. Andre was a huge attraction in France and he made a name for himself and began traveling the country. A promoter from Japan saw Andre and flew him to Japan and became nationally famous in that country. He made a jump to Canada and became a huge attraction in Montreal. He slowly made his way to the United States where Vince McMahon Sr. got his hooks into him and became his business manager of sorts. McMahon orchestrated Andre’s career in the states. This led to worldwide prominence, and TV appearances and movie roles and the Washington Redskins even held a tryout as a publicity stunt.
Out of everything, even The Princess Bride film, his match in WrestleMania III is probably the most significant moment of his career.
I was relieved that we never had to have the conversation with Vince McMahon about pulling back the curtain and revealing what goes on behind the scenes before a wrestling match. We didn’t have to keep perpetuating the “inconsistencies” in Andre’s life in the film and passing off the lies as truths.
His hometown and ever changing size were some of the least exaggerated tales. We weren’t forced to pretend that these matches were real. We could dig into the backstory talk to the participants, like Vince McMahon, and discuss choreographing the events, what went into planning, how the eventual winner was determined and how. That’s the part of the story that fascinates me, the productions of these events and the thought process that goes into planning these significant moments.
You’re dealing with a profession and a man where legends grow bigger by the year, especially because much of the sport is cloaked behind kayfabe and sticking to a fictional story. As a filmmaker, how difficult was it to separate the truth from fiction and get people to open up.
In any sports documentary, there’s always a phase of extensive research and countless sources to find out the truth and fact. Chris Webber DID call a timeout against UNC. That’s a fact. With wrestling, and particularly with Andre and wrestlers and matches in that time, there isn’t extensive documentation available and in some cases nothing at all. And the content that’s available isn’t always reputable since the industry relies so heavily on ethos and building on fiction.
Andre’s most prominent period was a time when the internet, YouTube, and Twitter didn’t exist. The only real reporting came from wrestling magazines that many times would make up entire stories and matches based on one photo from a contest across the country. It only helped to enhance the mystique.
One of the rules we set early on is we’d only include firsthand accounts of events. For example, if a person says “I heard he drank 166 beers once” our next question was “were you there?” and if they weren’t present the footage didn’t make the film. So at least with that, we have a fighting chance that as much fact makes it into the documentary as possible.
An interesting thing we did find was that many of the tall tales involving Andre are true. The man almost transcended fiction. Terry Todd did a fascinating piece on Andre for Sports Illustrated in the early 1980s, and he told us Andre consumed 7,000 calories a day just in alcohol and he spent a month with the man. Those are the stories that made the documentary.
Another person who adds to the mystique of Andre is his illegitimate daughter. She’s included in this documentary because if you’re going to the story of man’s life and his daughter is available to comment then it’s incumbent upon a filmmaker to sit her down to let her speak her peace.
This isn’t a puff piece or a love letter to Andre. He’s a man with faults, weaknesses and there are ugly parts of the guy just like all of us.
The WWE and Andre’s daughter have a history, and it’s not a pretty one.
It’s been my experience that whenever a person with a little fame and money passes away, there’s usually a lot of ugliness that follows. We didn’t get into that because we felt it didn’t fit into the film or Andre’s life.
Did any of the participants you interviewed discuss the idea that if at any point Andre felt like it, he could hurt or kill a man in the ring?
Many of Andre’s greatest rivals or the men he faced the most in the ring have passed on, so we didn’t get to talk to many of his contemporaries, but Hulk Hogan was great with shedding light on Andre’s ability and just what the man was capable of in the ring. Hogan said that everyone knew what the man could do and no one was going to take liberties with him in the ring. Andre wasn’t going to do anything Andre didn’t want to do. If he didn’t like a guy, he’d let them know it in the ring. He didn’t like the Iron Sheik very much. Big John Studd was another guy Andre didn’t like much. Studd stepped over the rope to get into the ring. No wrestler excepts Andre steps over the top rope. There was only one giant in professional wrestling and Andre went out of his way to prove that to Studd.
Now on the other hand, if Andre liked you, he went out of his way to make you look like a star in the ring. Ultimately, Andre would typically win the match, but he still made the guy shine. If Andre went into a territory and it was good business to let the champion look like a star and beat on him for a better part of the match. That’s how he earned the respect of so many wrestlers.
He knew the entertainment value of being a giant and coming in there. He knew the business inside and out. Letting a guy work you and chop you down, and sell for an opponent, he knew how to do that. As Dave Shoemaker explains in the film, “If Andre liked you, he could make you look great. If he didn’t like you, God help you.”
Hogan discusses in the film that going into the match at WrestleMania III, he didn’t know if he was going over. Andre left him in the dark until the opening bell.
Tim White, one of Andre’s closest friends and handler, feels that deep down even Vince didn’t know the true answer. No one but Andre knew if Andre was going to go along with the plan. That match is a pivotal moment in the history of pro wrestling. If Andre decided not to go along with it, he could sit on Hogan and take the title. Andre’s was willing to pass the torch to Hogan.
The build-up to the match at the Pontiac Silverdome, in front of more than 93,000 fans, was just about perfect.
After the pivotal Piper’s Pit taping, when Andre ripped off Hogan’s cross and drew blood, the match had a meaning. David Shoemaker was a crucial piece to the making of this film, especially the connections he helped make on camera to move the story along. Shoemaker explains that Andre turning on his “best friend” Hulk Hogan was the first time he and his young friends felt betrayal on such a level. It was also the first time he and his friends him considered morality at that level.
Andre was in immense physical pain going into that. But he knew it, so they had to be a little bit ginger with what he could do in there. You know, what were the steps that were taken to make sure that Hogan didn’t hurt him at all?
Andre shouldn’t have been in the ring that night. He was fresh off back surgery and wanted to retire long before that night. McMahon convinced him to participate in WrestleMania III.
Hulk Hogan had great reverence for Andre. Andre was like a father figure to him. Hogan did little things to make the match a little easier on Andre’s deteriorating body. Andre locks Hogan does that bear hug, for like 4 or 5 minutes in the middle of the ring, and Hogan stands straight up in the air, so the Giant has to do as little lifting or to bend as little as possible. Hogan also only knocked Andre down near the ropes, so that he could get himself up. And you know, everyone knew.
Andre stayed active in the business for a few years after that match though.
He did, but we didn’t get into that fact much, because the climax of the movie and his career is WrestleMania III. He had a few more runs with Hogan and then did programs with Jake “The Snake” Roberts and the Ultimate Warrior. By 1991, he could barely stand up. The disease took over.
The tragedy of Andre’s story is he elected not to have that disease treated. A doctor gave him the option but he didn’t go through with the procedure because he was afraid that it would affect his wrestling career. He self-medicated with alcohol. He didn’t do himself any favors. He died of heart failure and a lot of it was just him to not taking care of his body. If the man took care of himself, who knows how long he might have lived.