Being Andre the Giant
Andre the Giant spent his life balancing the wrestling spotlight with his desire for a normal existence
One year around Christmas in the early 1980s, Andre the Giant realized he could not breathe when he laid down to sleep.
He was safe in the privacy of his secluded country home in Ellerbe, North Carolina. It was a place he treasured, a place where he could relax without concern for being followed or stared at by strangers. But he was very ill.
Andre hesitated to visit a doctor's office. He wasn't a doctor type of guy. Besides that, he learned years before that being out in public anywhere, for any reason, risked causing a scene, simply because he was Andre the Giant. But he needed help. So he called on a local friend, Dr. Pressley R. Rankin Jr., to make a house call.
After about a week of daily visits to Andre's home, Doc Rankin had seen enough.
"This is my last visit," he told Andre, as remembered by Andre's close friend Jackie McAuley. "I refuse to come back here and watch you die."
Along with her first husband, Frenchy Bernard, McAuley was one of Andre's most trusted friends. Andre was not known for letting people tell him what to do. But he trusted Doc Rankin and he trusted Frenchy and Jackie. If anyone could get Andre's guard down, it was them.
"I told Andre that the next day he was going to the hospital, and he didn't have a choice," McAuley said. "He pretty much said OK."
Andre had a severe case of pericardial effusion. A large amount of fluid had built up around his heart, the weight of which jeopardized his heart's ability to function and made breathing very difficult, especially when lying down. He was transferred to the hospital at Duke University.
The medical staff at Duke successfully drained the fluid from Andre's heart. In the process, they also discovered his disease.
"They said 'You've got acromegaly,'" McAuley remembered. "He said 'Yeah, I know. I've known about it for years.'"
Acromegaly is a disease of the pituitary gland that causes constant secretion of growth hormone. Its onset is often gradual, with excessive growth of the hands, feet, forehead, chin and other features among the telltale signs. It's the reason Andre was so large, the reason his voice and facial features were so unique, and it would likely be one of the reasons he died young. Acromegaly is treatable and even reversible. But if it goes untreated, it can greatly shorten a person's life expectancy.
Andre first learned he had acromegaly in Japan in the early 1970s. He refused treatment that time. He refused it again at Duke.
"They wanted to operate and he said no," McAuley said. "I couldn't convince him. I guess at that point, it was a little bit late anyway."
The third of Boris and Marianne Roussimoff's five children, Andre was born in the French town of Coulommiers on May 19, 1946, reportedly weighing 11 pounds. The Roussimoffs raised their family in Molien, a small village less than 40 miles east of Paris.
Life began to change for Andre in early adolescence. He grew substantially, reaching six feet tall by the time he was 12, seven feet by age 18. He was physically enormous, immensely strong and distinctly charming. His voice was ultra-deep. People were drawn to him. Word of mouth spread fast about young Andre, the giant.
Having worked many uninspiring manual labor jobs, a teenage Andre had yet to find a path in life that excited him. That changed when he tried pro wrestling. Suddenly, the small-town kid was performing in the world's biggest cities in front of throngs of mesmerized fans. Pro wrestling was perfect for Andre the Giant. He could travel the world, become a celebrity, meet new people, make lots of money and have fun doing it.
After learning his craft in Europe, Andre adopted the moniker of Monster Roussimoff and made his first tour of Japan, a place where he'd become an all-time legend on the wrestling circuit. As a heel in Japan, Andre fine-tuned his performance ability. He taunted opponents and engaged with the audience, overcoming the obvious language barrier.
At that age, Andre was very lean and surprisingly nimble. He could dart in and out of the ring during tag team matches and chase down much smaller opponents. He often used the tombstone piledriver as his finishing move, an impressive sight for a man of his size.
It wasn't long before North American promoters came calling. Andre's first stop was Quebec, where his native French was not a barrier to communication. This time, Andre was promoted as a smiling babyface named Geant Jean Ferre, based on a giant character out of French lore. Instead of instilling fear in the local wrestling hero, he became the friendly giant that assisted other good guys. Fans ate it up, and Andre the Giant was officially a hot item.
Coming to America
In the early 1970s, Andre ventured into the United States, where promoter Vincent J. McMahon (father of current WWE honcho Vincent K. McMahon) devised a marketing strategy to keep Andre's act fresh: Promote Andre the Giant as a touring attraction, rather than a resident local star. Instead of moving to a new region every year or two like most wrestlers did, Andre the Giant would appear on a rotating basis for every promoter that cared to book him, but only for a limited time each year.
An Andre the Giant appearance was a rare, can't-miss event. Soon, promoters were planning their biggest events of the year around Andre's availability. The tactic was a win-win for everyone involved. Dory Funk Jr., a former NWA World Heavyweight Champion, doubled as a promoter in the Amarillo, Texas, territory for a time after his father, Dory Funk Sr., passed away in 1973. Funk was one of many promoters that benefited from Andre's extreme popularity.
"He was an automatic sellout for us everywhere we went," Funk said. "We rotated our towns and we booked him every night for two weeks. He sold out every building."
For the next decade, Andre the Giant traveled the globe this way, a bona fide wrestling superstar everywhere from Amarillo to New York City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Miami, Montreal, Tokyo and everywhere in between. Andre was often booked to win a battle royal, a match in which 10 to 30 wrestlers fill the ring at one time and attempt to throw each other over the top rope, the last man standing declared the winner. Two-ring battle royals were also common. Soon, Andre's reputation as the king of the battle royal became a part of his legacy.
"Every night we'd set up two rings and we'd have a giant battle royal," Funk said. "He did fabulous business for us. I actually called Vince McMahon Sr. and I asked him 'How much should I pay Andre?' because we were doing such super business. Vince said 'Just keep him happy.'"
Keeping Andre happy meant keeping Andre comfortable. At his size, traveling was a chore, and he was traveling non-stop. To ease that burden, promoters often assigned a driver to take Andre from town to town. Sometimes the driver was an up-and-coming wrestler. That's how future wrestling star Jake "The Snake" Roberts, then just 19 years old, first met Andre in Louisiana in 1974.
"I remember there was a big van and they put a bean-bag chair in it, and he crawled up in there and plopped in there," Roberts said. "I didn't say a word, and drove."
On the way back from the show, Andre requested beer. Roberts stopped and bought enough for the both of them -- a six pack for himself, two cases for the big guy. Andre tossed back the majority of his alcohol, and Roberts recalls it didn't even faze him. He didn't even need to stop for a restroom break.
"He wasn't drunk," Roberts said. "That was pretty amazing to me."
That was another can't-miss way to keep Andre happy: Keep him stocked up on beer and wine. Stories of Andre the Giant's ability to consume massive amounts of alcohol in one sitting are as legendary as his wrestling exploits. On one of Andre's tours of Amarillo, a young college kid named Ted DiBiase -- the future "Million Dollar Man," who at the time was playing college football at West Texas State -- was asked by the Funks (Dory and his brother Terry) to take Andre out on the town. DiBiase was a friend of the Funks since his stepfather's time wrestling in Amarillo, and the Funks weren't available to entertain Andre that night, so DiBiase took Andre out for drinks.
"The gal comes up to our table and says, 'What would you guys like?' and Andre asked her if she had a big trash can," DiBiase recalled. "She said 'Yeah, we got a bunch of 'em.' He said 'Empty a trash can and fill it with beer and ice.' And she looked at me like, 'He can't be serious.' "
The waitress filled the trash can with two or three cases of beer on ice and dragged it over to the table.
"It was just incredible. We sat there and had ourselves a feast," DiBiase said.
Since Andre's English was still lacking, he liked being in the company of French-speaking people. For a time, veteran French wrestler Frank Valois traveled with Andre to assist him on the road. That's also one of the reasons he hit it off with Frenchy Bernard, a native Quebecer and former wrestling referee that became one of Andre's best friends and a caretaker for Andre's property in North Carolina. They could converse and joke around in French.
Frenchy's ex-wife, Jackie McAuley, recalled his amazement upon first meeting his soon-to-be best friend.
"Andre ducked under the doorway and he said, 'I didn't think he'd ever stop!' They hit it off at that point."
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, everything about Andre the Giant's life got bigger. His income grew to where he was believed to be the highest paid pro wrestler in the world, even wealthier than the reigning world champions of the mid-1970s.
He was one of the only pro wrestlers famous enough to be invited as a guest on The Tonight Show. In 1975, the Washington Redskins offered him a tryout, more for the publicity he could bring them than for any hope that Andre might take them up on the invitation (he didn't).
He "fought" boxer Chuck Wepner at Shea Stadium in 1976 in a boxer vs. wrestler showcase. Even Hollywood took notice, giving rise to Andre's side job as an actor.
Everything about Andre's career was getting bigger. Curiously, he was still growing in physical ways, too. His always-massive torso began to protrude. He gained weight. His hands and feet expanded to incredible sizes. His head was growing, his facial features changing. It is likely that his bones and joints were still growing in density, too, putting extra strain on a body already under pressure from sheer size and the rigors of a wrestling career that included constant travel.
His body was breaking down just as some of his biggest career moments were upon him. Acromegaly began to take over before many people even knew he had the condition.
Life on the road
Andre spent his entire adult life traveling the world with a group of eccentric alpha-males with high thresholds for pain. It's no wonder that his favorite pastimes included heavy drinking, pranks and sophomoric humor. In those ways, Andre was probably no different from his peers.
After a show, Andre could easily turn a night out for a few drinks into an all-night endeavor.
"I just knew if Andre was drinking, you didn't want to sit with him," wrestling legend "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan said. "Sometimes he would make you sit and drink with him. And that means a long day in the bathroom the next day, you know, with your head in the toilet."
Like Jake Roberts, Ted DiBiase noted that as much as Andre drank, he rarely appeared drunk.
"Obviously for a man his size, he could drink a lot," DiBiase said. "But in all the time I was with Andre, I never saw him slur a word. I never saw him out of control, ever."
Stories of Andre's other-worldly capacity for drinking are widespread and outrageous. Like the time Andre tossed back over 100 beers. Or that time he passed out in a hotel lobby after a night of drinking and had to be hidden beneath a piano cover until he woke up. One of Andre's best friends, former WWE referee Tim White, says people should believe the hype.
"Every bit of it's true," White said. "He could do it as much as he wanted, when he wanted. Some days if he was having fun with the people that he was with, he'd put them all to bed."
White was also Andre's personal driver. And no matter how epic the previous night of drinking was, Andre would always meet his obligations the next day.
"He'd stay up all night and be ready in the lobby at six in the morning," White said. "He was something else."
Andre loved wine and beer, but the alcohol also served a purpose. More so than many of his wrestling friends, Andre was living in pain.
"He hated pills, medicine, and painkillers and stuff, because he saw what it was doing to other guys," DiBiase said. "So the way Andre killed his pain and medicated himself was with booze."
Within the wrestling fraternity, ribbing -- another word for pranking -- is a time-honored way of amusing each other and breaking the monotony of life on the road. Sometimes, Andre would entertain himself by finding subtle ways to torment his opponent during a match.
Andre wrestled Duggan numerous times in the late 1980s as part of their WWF (the organization's name until 2002) feud. A typical spot in their matches involved Andre wrapping the shoulder strap of his wrestling singlet around Duggan's neck and choking him. One night during a main-event match, Andre turned that move into a gross-out prank at Duggan's expense.
"When he grabbed me and went to wrap the strap around my neck, he missed, and it went across my mouth," Duggan remembered. "Now he starts choking me with it and he's squeezing all that Giant-juice out of his gear. I'm fighting as hard as I've ever fought in my life, you know. I'm probably 300 pounds back then. And Andre is just giggling, going 'Hee hee hee hee!' He'd squeeze me and choke me some more with that strap, and all that sweat and stuff, Giant sweat, would drip down my throat. It was brutal."
Andre had a favorite rib he liked to pull with long-haired opponents such as Duggan or Roberts.
"He used to like to knock you down and of course when you hit the mat, your hair would be on the mat," Duggan said. "He would step on either side of your head and stand on your hair. Then he'd grab your arms and pick you up. It's a real elaborate way to pull your hair. I remember Jake Roberts used to come back in the dressing room with his hair sticking straight up going, 'I hate when he does that! I hate when he does that!'"
As Andre's manager in storylines, DiBiase happened to be at ringside to witness Andre's hair-pulling rib on Roberts.
"He knows he's standing on his hair, except he'd say 'GET UP!' and he'd pull Jake up," DiBiase laughed. "Jake would go 'Ahh! Ahh!' He'd do it two or three times. It was just his way of just having fun with you. He wasn't really hurting him."
Roberts remembers Andre's playful nature well. He took the pranks in stride. He had little choice.
"What are you gonna do, get pissed off and slap him? Not me, bro," Roberts said. "He was just having fun, man. No harm no foul."
During one match between Roberts and Andre, the action went to the mat. Andre sat on Roberts, who was laying on his side. Roberts felt a strange sensation. Andre laughed, breaking character. The referee asked him why he was laughing. Andre told him he was farting.
"This went on for like 30 seconds," Roberts said. "Giants fart for extremely long periods of time."
One of Andre's favorite pastimes from his days living in France was a natural crossover to the wrestling locker room. Andre loved playing cards. His game of choice was cribbage.
"He was very serious about his cribbage game," Roberts said, "to the point of 'Screw the match, we're not through with this game yet,' you know? He wouldn't walk away."
Those days in the WWF, the wrestlers would often have to show up to the building hours in advance of their matches and wait for their time to hit the ring. For Andre, that downtime was perfect for a spirited game of cards. Sometimes, as Duggan remembered, it could become a distraction.
"You'd be in there playing cards with Andre and you're like, 'Is that my music?' and you'd have to run out to the ring," Duggan recalled.
The storyline that started Andre's WWF feud with Jake Roberts revolved around Andre being afraid of snakes. During one match, Roberts recalled, his snake actually bit Andre, breaking off its fangs in the giant's shoulder. Fearing Andre's temper, Roberts immediately went looking for Andre after the match to apologize.
"I peeked my head around the door and seen him sitting down," Roberts recalled. "I'm like 'OK, that's good news.' He's playing cards already. I'm like, 'Hey Andre!' He's like, 'Hey boss. Good match. Thank you.' Then Rick Rude walked up to him and goes, 'Oh look, Andre. Snake fangs.' And he pulled them out. He goes, 'Ha. Snake must have been hungry.'"
In reality, Andre was not afraid of Roberts' pet snakes. But when the time came to convince the audience otherwise, Andre sold it 100 percent, begging Roberts to back off as he threatened to put his boa constrictor Damien on him. Jake draped the reptile across Andre's chest, and the giant panicked, fell to the canvas clutching his chest, and went motionless, implying he had suffered a fear-induced heart attack.
Even while selling the drama to fans in a live setting, Andre was cooking up another gross-out rib, this one directed at his manager, Bobby "The Brain" Heenan.
"When he went down in the ropes, he told Bobby Heenan 'Give me mouth to mouth,'" Roberts said.
Heenan didn't fall for it.
Passing the torch
When Vince McMahon took over his father's wrestling promotion in 1982, it meant the eventual end of Andre's decades-long stint as a territory-hopping special attraction. Starting in 1984, as far as North America was concerned, Andre the Giant would perform exclusively for the WWF.
McMahon's top priority was to build Hulk Hogan into a figurehead champion for his company. Andre and Hogan had worked against each other years earlier for Vince McMahon Sr., with Hogan playing the heel that time. Andre played a pivotal role in helping legitimize Hogan as a wrestling star, first when Hogan was a villain, and then again in 1984 by giving him the stamp of approval as a top babyface when Hogan won the WWF title.
"The biggest, most famous guy on the roster is Andre the Giant," DiBiase said. "Andre made Hulk Hogan, in my opinion. Here comes this guy that has everything going for him, you know, Hogan. His size, his whole deal, his look. But you know, somebody's gotta make him a star. And Andre the Giant more than anybody, I think, is the guy who helped Hogan become a star, and I think Hogan would tell you that."
Andre famously lost a clean pinfall to Hogan at WrestleMania III in 1987, allowing Hogan to bodyslam and pin him at a packed Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan. Andre's aura of invincibility was gone for good, largely because Andre had decided it was time.
"That match was his idea," Dory Funk said. "It was Andre's creation. He went to Vince Jr. and they went to Hulk, and they set up the match. They built it up, but it was primarily Andre the Giant's program. He was a very giving guy. He was very proud of working with Hulk on that show."
A year later, Andre would defeat Hogan in a match televised in primetime on NBC, winning the WWF world title and then promptly giving it to DiBiase in a shocking turn of events. DiBiase's association with Andre was a boon to his career.
"Being out there with Andre kind of cemented the deal that I was one of the top guys in the WWF," DiBiase said. "It really set off my career there, and for that, I'll always be grateful."
Both Duggan and Roberts agreed that Andre's willingness to let them look strong at his expense boosted their careers as well.
"He was instrumental in moving me from a mid-card guy to a main-event guy, and that's a debt I'll never be able to repay," Duggan said.
"He was constantly wanting to do things that looked impossible," Roberts said. "And he did. When he convinced the people that Jake 'The Snake' Roberts could beat him, he did the impossible."
Andre saw it as his duty to use his fame to help other wrestlers get over with fans. But nobody gets along with every person they meet. Andre was no different. And if Andre the Giant didn't like a guy, he made it abundantly clear.
"He was a pretty good judge of character," DiBiase said. "There were some guys that if he thought they were a horse's butt, he would tell them."
At the first WrestleMania in 1985, Andre beat Big John Studd in a bodyslam challenge match. Andre vs. Studd was one of WWE's classic rivalries of the 1980s, but as often as they wrestled each other, they weren't great friends.
"He didn't like Big John Studd," Duggan said. "And if he didn't like you, it was a long day out there. We used to tag up, it was me and Big John against Andre and Haku. Every time Andre would get in the ring, Big John would come over and tag me. He didn't want to be in the ring with Andre."
Roberts said the conflict may have stemmed from a disrespectful comment Studd allegedly made about Andre.
"Studd called him a circus freak one time," Roberts said. "Andre beat the living crap out of him every time they got in the ring."
In 1987, Bam Bam Bigelow arrived in the WWF with endless potential, but his attitude rubbed some veterans, like Andre, the wrong way. One night, Andre decided to teach Bigelow some respect during a match.
"He wasn't really beating him up, he was just being heavy-handed with Bammer," Duggan remembered. "Bam rolled out of the ring, walked back to the dressing room, got his bag, and left the arena."
DiBiase was in the locker room at the time of Bigelow's hasty exit, getting ready to wrestle Randy "Macho Man" Savage.
"Bigelow comes in, grabs up his gear, and walks out the door, slamming the door, and says 'I quit!' Apparently Andre taught Bam Bam a lesson in the ring," he said.
Years later, a more mature Bigelow went back to the WWF. DiBiase said Bigelow was appreciative of Andre's tough love in hindsight.
"He would be the first one to tell you, 'You know what? Andre was right. It's the greatest lesson I ever learned,'" DiBiase recalled. "He said, 'If Andre hadn't have done that, I'd have screwed it up.'"
While countless wrestlers considered Andre a friend, he had an inner circle of close friends to whom he was fiercely loyal. With everyone else, it was up to Andre. Some days he loved their company. Other days, he just wanted them gone.
"If he didn't have a relationship with you or didn't have something to share with you, then he didn't waste time with you," Roberts said. "A lot of guys would try to brown-nose him and just make themselves look stupid in front of him. He didn't much care for that."
Although Tim White was among the handful of people Andre considered his closest friends, it didn't come easy. White made a terrible first impression simply by violating one of Andre's old-school rules: Unless you were a wrestler, the locker room was off limits. At the time, White was handling merchandise for the WWF. Wrestler-turned-road agent Chief Jay Strongbow asked White to run a simple errand for him.
"He asked me to bring some inserts down to see what the lineup card was," White recalled. "I had just walked into the locker room. When I walked in, Andre was playing cards with Tito Santana. He stood up and he yelled 'GET OUT!' in that big, deep voice of his. I was scared shitless. I dropped the paperwork and ran out the door."
Andre only allowed White to join him for beers after Andre's longtime friend Arnold Skaaland vouched for White, telling Andre he was a good guy. Once Andre the Giant and Tim White finally hit it off, they'd be permanent friends. When the WWF needed a new driver for Andre to ease his travel burden, White took on that duty.
"He had friends all over the world, and we'd stop [and visit them]," White said. "Most of them owned restaurants and bars. We'd be there all day and night. It was a lot of fun. I think people were taking bets on when I was gonna drop dead from running with the Giant."
Point of no return
White spent about six years on the road with Andre, observing him at his best and also at his most vulnerable. By this time, Andre's physical proportions were becoming increasingly distorted by his untreated acromegaly condition.
Even without acromegaly, a guy entering his third decade as a main-event pro wrestler will have to deal with pain pretty regularly, especially a man the size of Andre the Giant. But as acromegaly slowly took over and Andre's body grew in abnormal ways, he did his best to keep going as if nothing was wrong. It was a tragic consequence of his decision to refuse treatment that might have greatly eased his pain and prolonged his life.
Andre's condition was first discovered by doctors in Japan, where they offered to perform corrective surgery. This was before Andre had ever come to North America. He was 23 years old at the time. The doctors allegedly told him he may not live past 40.
Nobody may have been closer to Andre the Giant than his friends Frenchy Bernard and Frenchy's then-wife, Jackie. McAuley was one of the few people Andre told about his diagnosis in Japan.
"They tried to get him to take the operation," McAuley said. "They would go through the nose and operate on the pituitary gland. He refused."
After Andre's health scare in the 1980s, when he had fluid drained from around his heart, doctors at Duke University independently discovered his condition. They, too, advised Andre to let them operate. Once again, Andre refused.
"He said, 'If this is the size that God wanted me to be, I'm going to be this size,'" McAuley recalled.
Andre was 40 years old when he began his WrestleMania III feud with Hulk Hogan. He had surpassed doctors' expectations and continued to have major WWF feuds for years afterward. But all was not well. His health was in steady decline. The man billed as "The Eighth Wonder of the World" needed help from his tag team partners and opponents to continue to appear mighty in front of the fans.
"There were times when we would walk to the ring and he'd have his hand on my shoulder," DiBiase said. "To the crowd, it just seemed like well, you know, that's his tag team partner and he's 7-foot-4, and he's kind of using my shoulder as an armrest. But in reality, he was steadying himself. I was kind of like a crutch."
"I just know that it was really hard for him to get up and down," Roberts said. "If you look back at the matches I had with him, I never knocked him on his ass unless it was near the ropes. That way he could pull himself up."
To Andre's benefit, fans didn't expect or demand great athleticism from him in the later years. They just wanted to see him perform in person. As always, he wowed the crowd with his presence, not necessarily with his moves.
"No matter what was wrong, he would make it to the ring," Duggan said. "Even towards the end, when he wasn't physically able to do too much, he would still get to the ring and let his tag team partner do most of the work, but at least let the fans get a look at Andre in the ring."
"Toward the end, he probably shouldn't have been out there, but he was so amazing to see," Roberts added. "He still put butts in seats. He carried himself well even though he couldn't walk fast. Him walking slow just made him look that much bigger."
Trapped by fame
Andre had gone his entire adult life as a walking, breathing spectacle. Everywhere he went, people pointed and stared. Many of them were just adoring fans of his, which Andre greatly appreciated. But when he wasn't performing, he grew tired of the people that would bother him in rude or inconsiderate ways.
"If somebody walked up to him and stuck his hand up to him and said, 'Put your hand up here, I want to see how big it is,' he wasn't crazy about that," Funk said. "But if somebody was his real friend, he'd do anything for him."
McAuley noted that part of the reason Andre stayed in specific hotels and ate at the same restaurants was so that he could trust the staff not to stare or allow other patrons to cause a scene. Like anyone else after a hard day's work, when his wrestling performance was over, he just wanted some peace.
"He used to tell me, 'I'd like to be you for a week,'" White said. "Because he just couldn't not be seen or be gawked at."
Andre was far from anti-social. He loved being in the company of true friends and people who respected the boundaries of his privacy. But to Andre, it often seemed like people he encountered didn't truly respect him; rather, they saw him as an outcast. In that way, even when surrounded by people, Andre was a lonely man.
Some people even had the nerve to mock him.
"People would make fun of him and point at him and the size of his rear-end, and shit like that," Roberts said. "It makes you sick that people are so shallow. I don't know, man. It's just messed up that they would laugh at this guy. Number one, you won't laugh to his face."
Sometimes Andre would reach the breaking point and lash out at people who wouldn't leave him alone. DiBiase learned to sympathize with Andre after traveling with him for a while.
"Here's a guy that was 7-feet-4 inches tall and he's a celebrity," DiBiase said. "Everywhere he went, people bombarded him. I got to understand this by being with him. I became the buffer for him. We would go somewhere and people would just come to the table. Sometimes you can sneak in a place or you can hide in the back. Where was Andre the Giant gonna hide?"
It frustrated Andre when people didn't respect his privacy, but even when people treated him well, the difficulties of life at his size made him crave a more normal existence.
"He was kind of a lonely guy," Duggan said. "I mean, he was just so big, and wherever he went, everybody would make a fuss out of him. It was a hard life for a guy like that. Just sitting in the airplane seats or flying to Japan, you know, there's no way he could get into the bathroom of an airplane."
It didn't help when fans and autograph seekers would request things that reinforced in Andre's mind that they might view him as some sort of freak. They didn't want to compliment him on his wrestling performances so much as they wanted to see how much food was on his plate or the size of his head.
"He was a super respectful guy of everybody," Funk said. "But if anybody treated him like anything but a normal person, he would turn angry pretty quick."
Living in the public eye is the price you pay for fame. All wrestlers go through it to varying extents. But in Andre's case, there was a different subtext to all of the attention. Knowingly or not, a lot of those people were grating on Andre's deepest insecurities.
"He was bombarded so much that it just came to where he couldn't hardly deal with it," DiBiase said.
"He had a lot of talent, but he also was a human being," White noted. "He had the same feelings and emotions that we all have. He was just a guy doing his job."
As much time as Andre spent on the road, he loved going home to his ranch in North Carolina. His dear friends Frenchy and Jackie would be there tending to matters in Andre's absence. His faithful dogs and the Texas longhorn cattle he raised were also there waiting for his attention. He had a home where everything he needed was the proper size. And it was located in Ellerbe, a town with a small population of folks who were aware of Andre's presence, but generally respected his boundaries and welcomed him as a part of the community.
The AFJ Ranch (for "Andre, Frenchy & Jackie") was Andre the Giant's refuge from a hectic wrestling schedule. It was a place where Andre Roussimoff could stop being Andre the Giant for a while. He could relax there. He could be normal, whatever that meant.
Sometimes it meant riding his ATV around a loop on the property and letting his dogs run along with him. Sometimes it meant sneaking into town to catch a movie -- sitting in the back row as a courtesy, of course, because he never wanted to block anyone's view. Once in a while, he'd invite some wrestling friends over.
"We actually were invited to his ranch in North Carolina," Dory Funk said. "We met his Rottweiler dogs and his Texas longhorn cattle."
Andre's home had a tree growing up through the middle of all three floors of the house. Every six months or so, Frenchy would go up and trim the branches. Jackie would water the other plants. Frenchy and Jackie moved to Ellerbe in 1980 because Andre asked Frenchy if he'd tend to his property while he was on the road. Frenchy, who had recently been fired from a referee job due to a falling-out with a promoter, agreed.
Jackie said Andre and Frenchy complemented each other perfectly as friends. Although he wasn't a big man by pro wrestler standards -- let alone by Andre the Giant standards -- Frenchy (who passed away in 2013) would defend Andre at the drop of a hat if anyone started trouble with him.
"I cannot remember how many times a guy would get drunk at a bar and want to pick a fight with Andre the Giant," McAuley said. "Lord knows why. There'd be Frenchy in the middle of it trying to take the guy on, and Andre's holding Frenchy by the belt, and Frenchy's feet are flying in the air because Andre's got him in the air going, 'Cool off, cool off, let him go.'"
A common story about Andre's house in Ellerbe was that everything in it was custom-built for his supersized frame. Even some of his friends that visited him on the ranch remember it that way. But that's not entirely true, McAuley said, although there were some exceptions.
"We had the plumber come by and raise the shower head so that he would actually be able to take a shower without it hitting the middle of his back," she said. "And over the years, we purchased or had made two or three oversized chairs. But those were the only [special] accommodations."
During a typical morning at home, Andre would sleep late and then meet Frenchy for breakfast and iced coffee at the local Dixie Burger. He and Frenchy would then spend the day on outdoor projects, from tending to the cattle to cutting down trees. In later years when Andre's mobility had worsened, he rode an ATV around his property. If the weather cooperated, Andre would take the dogs for a swim.
Andre didn't like to cook, but McAuley and others took care of that for him. Andre could eat a lot when he felt like it -- tales of his food intake are second only to his drinking stories -- but McAuley noted his diet wasn't that unusual when he was home. After a full breakfast, Andre may not eat anything else until dinner time, save for the odd midday snack of fruit or yogurt.
"Considering how most people eat several times a day, he didn't really eat that much," McAuley said.
When he ate yogurt, Andre intentionally chose the small yogurt cups, for entertainment purposes.
"When it got empty, he'd put it down on the floor and let the miniature dachshund get its head stuck in it trying to lick all of the yogurt out of the container," McAuley said. "Andre thought it was funny."
Andre's evenings at home in Ellerbe were often spent playing cribbage or Uno with Frenchy, Jackie and other friends. Barbecues were a regular occurrence. Later in the night, Andre might spend hours sitting and watching TV shows and movies. Gone with the Wind was one of his favorites.
One night while channel-surfing on his satellite TV, Andre discovered a channel that quickly became one of his favorites: QVC. Andre couldn't just go shopping in public. He didn't want to risk attracting unwanted audiences everywhere he went. Instead, he would tell someone what he wanted and send them out to buy it for him. Shopping from his living room via QVC allowed Andre to experience shopping without those headaches.
Before long, random items Andre had purchased "As Seen on TV" -- from Green Machine carpet steamers to porcelain butterfly sets from the Franklin Mint -- began arriving in regular shipments.
"Credit card and newfound shopping?" McAuley said. "We just never knew what that man was gonna buy. But it was his only venture into shopping, you know?"
An inconceivable success
Andre would also frequently watch the movie he was most proud of: 1987's The Princess Bride, in which he played the part of Fezzik. Andre was so pleased with his role in the movie that when he went on a tour of Japan, he'd screen the film on the bus and make the other wrestlers sit through it repeatedly.
"He was proud of being a box office attraction in wrestling, but he was also very proud of his acting skills," said Funk, who was on that bus in Japan and has seen the movie several times at Andre's insistence.
From the moment Andre got the script for The Princess Bride, McAuley could sense his enthusiasm. It was typical of Andre to ask her to read his acting scripts and provide feedback. This time, Andre was more anxious than usual.
"He's asking, 'Have you gotten to this part? Have you gotten to that part?' And I'd never seen him act like that with any of the other scripts," she said.
While Andre was away filming the movie, he frequently called home to tell Frenchy and Jackie about how things were going. He reportedly got along wonderfully with the cast and crew, who went out of their way to make things easier on him due to his injured back. After consulting with McAuley, the movie makers purchased a Honda ATV for Andre so he could move around on the set as easily as he did at the AFJ Ranch.
The movie premiered in Toronto in the fall of 1987. Per usual, Tim White was with Andre on that trip.
"He was actually shaking, nervous during the premiere of the movie because he wasn't sure how the other actors were going to accept him or his performance," White recalled. "I don't think he had even seen the final cut. When they cheered and patted him on the back and everything, he was the happiest guy in the world. And so was I, for him."
Robin Christensen almost never does media and isn't particularly fond of unwanted attention.
In that way, you could say she's a lot like her father.
Christensen is Andre the Giant's only child. Her mother Jean (who passed away in 2008) became acquainted with her dad through the wrestling business around 1972 or 1973. Several years later, Robin was born.
Having lived in the Seattle area her entire life, Robin only remembers seeing her father in person five times.
"I can recall two or three times at arenas," she said. "Unfortunately, other times, they were in court."
Andre had a strained relationship with Robin's mother, which added complications to the already-tricky issue of how, when and where Andre could spend time with his daughter. It was one of Andre's deepest regrets.
"It broke his heart," Jackie McAuley said. "It absolutely broke his heart that they couldn't spend more time together."
There was never a time when Robin didn't know who her father was. But as for his on-screen work, she didn't watch him on TV growing up. She knew her dad was famous, and knew he was in everything from Saturday morning cartoons to Honeycomb cereal commercials and Cyndi Lauper's music video for her song in the movie The Goonies. But she didn't watch much of his work.
"Honestly, the only times that I saw any match was when they were in town and we went to the shows," Robin said. "It wasn't on in the house, mainly because I wasn't interested and you know, my mom wasn't part of the industry anymore. She wanted me to form my own opinions on my dad, not what the media sold him as."
Now a grown adult, Robin still doesn't watch much of Andre's work, but it's not for lack of interest in her dad.
"There's a lot of mixed emotion when it comes to watching his old stuff in the ring," she said. "I even have hard times now and then watching The Princess Bride. A lot of mixed emotions when it comes to that sort of thing. A lot of it has to do with the fact that I am his daughter. It's just one of those things of, you know, it's just really, really mixed emotions when it comes to that just simply because we didn't have the relationship that we could have had. And a lot of it had to do with his work schedule. Yeah, it's not easy to watch."
As averse as he was to people gawking at him in public, Andre didn't want to chance a private meeting with his daughter turning into a public spectacle, which limited the times and ways in which he could see her. He did, however, want to bring Robin for a visit to his ranch in North Carolina. The problem was that Andre's relationship with Robin's mother was too strained for her to visit the ranch, and Robin was too young to feel safe flying across the country without her mom.
McAuley once played go-between in an effort to bring Robin to North Carolina to visit her father.
"He really, really wanted Robin to come out to North Carolina and he'd try to get that arranged," McAuley said. "Robin's mother, she said, 'Well, if you could send somebody to get Robin, she can go.' Andre flew me to Washington. They picked me up at the airport, and we had dinner. I spent the evening there at the house with them and it was all arranged that I would fly out, pick up Robin, and bring her to the ranch."
At the last minute, the plan fell through.
"My mom gave me the choice, and I was the one who said no," Robin said. "She was never the one who said no. It was all me."
Robin made it clear that her mother never tried to keep her from seeing Andre. She was simply too young to feel comfortable going anywhere her mother couldn't be with her, particularly that far across the country.
"When you're not even 10 years old and they're saying, 'Oh yeah, you can come out, but your mom has to stay home,' and you want me to come to a place where I don't know anybody, I'm not gonna say yes," she said.
Despite many missed opportunities to spend time together in person, Andre did keep in contact with Robin and paid child support to her mother. They spoke on the phone, particularly on holidays.
"He never tried to exclude us in any way. We always had a phone number where we could reach him and that sort of thing," Robin said.
The last time Andre and Robin spoke on the phone was on Christmas of 1992, shortly before he died. About a month later, Robin said she and her mother would learn of Andre's passing from a message left on their answering machine by his lawyer.
"I had just gotten home from school," she remembered. "I was doing something in the living room and my mom came out of her bedroom crying, and told me that my dad passed away. I promptly left the house and went to my best friend's house at that time, and probably didn't come home for five or six hours."
Robin did not attend either of her father's two memorial services, though she was invited to the one held in France by Andre's family.
Years later, as a young adult, Robin made attempts to try and learn more about her father from people that knew him professionally. When wrestlers came to town, she'd hang out near the hotel bar in the places they liked to stay, looking for people who may have known her father.
Some encounters were successful. Others were disappointing.
"I met Randy Savage once, probably about 15 years ago or so," Robin said. "I talked to him for a little bit because I was asking him some questions. At one point, he just looked at me and he was like, 'I wish I could tell you more, but your dad didn't like me.' He was like, 'I had nothing but the utmost respect for him, but your dad did not like me.'"
It wasn't always easy striking up a conversation with Andre's old friends.
"Honestly, it was like pulling teeth trying to get them to talk sometimes," she said. "If you're not part of the industry then it's really hard to get them to talk. They're very protective of privacy. So it's a lot for me to make them realize I am his daughter, you know."
The person she hit it off with the best wasn't a pro wrestler but one of Andre's acting friends from The Princess Bride. Chris Sarandon made an appearance one year at Emerald City Comic Con to sign autographs. Robin took the opportunity to introduce herself.
"The first stop that I made was in his autograph line," she said. "I wrote out a note explaining who I was, because honestly it's not something you want to say out loud in a venue that big, because people tend to stop you. I put the note on top of the picture that I was having him sign, which got a very weird look from Chris, which was hilarious. I was like, 'I promise there's a reason that the note is there.' He read it, and it was just explaining who I was, that Andre was my dad, but I was just looking to find out if he had any stories that he'd be willing to share."
Once Sarandon realized who Robin was, he greeted her warmly.
"The next thing I know I'm being pulled into a hug," she said. "After our conversation, he asked me if he could keep the note, which had my email address, my phone number, my name, all that, because he was going to see Cary [Elwes] in about a month and he wanted to pass on my information. I said yes to that. Then not even two days after Comic Con ended, I got a call from Cary."
Robin said Cary Elwes, who starred in the The Princess Bride and was very fond of Andre, remains in touch to this day.
"Out of everybody that he worked with in the wrestling industry and all that, the one person who has been the most wonderful to talk to about my dad has been Cary," she said.
Today, Robin has of many of her father's prized belongings, including some of his ring gear, clothing, and his WWE Hall of Fame ring. Her dad took care in his will to set up a trust for her. To this day, anytime the name and likeness of Andre the Giant is used for a video game, action figure or other merchandise, Robin has a say in its usage and receives royalties.
Robin said that through her involvement with Andre's licensing, she has some contact with WWE. While she hasn't been explicitly invited as a guest for things like the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania, she says she can usually get tickets to a show if she asks.
Jackie McAuley hasn't spoken with Robin since shortly after Andre passed away but said she was always impressed by Robin as a child.
"I was so impressed with her," McAuley said. "I think about her quite often, I really do. He really, really loved that child."
Andre's last ride
In early 1990, Andre's run as a full-time wrestler with the WWF came to an end. He and Haku dropped the WWF tag team title to Demolition at WrestleMania VI that spring. By then, Andre's mobility was severely limited by decades of wrestling, incessant travel, and the severe advancement of his acromegaly. Andre stepped away from wrestling for nearly six months in 1990, resuming an active schedule in Japan that autumn.
On October 30, 1990, back in the United States between tours of Japan, Andre visited a lawyer in New York to finalize his will.
In his will, Andre directed that when he passed away, his remains were to be cremated and his ashes "disposed of." He left a flat sum of money to Frenchy Bernard and an equal sum to Jackie McAuley (whose last name at the time was Bernard), "my loyal friends." Aside from his gifts to Frenchy and Jackie, his daughter Robin was the only other beneficiary named in Andre's will. He left very detailed instructions about establishing and maintaining a trust for his daughter. He signed his name at the bottom of 16 pages of the 18-page document, "A. Roussimoff."
Andre the Giant would appear in the WWF again, but he would soon need crutches to get around. Even in his nearly crippled state, Andre was a legendary star that fans would still pay to see in person. While the WWF stopped putting Andre in the ring after 1991, he accepted bookings in Mexico and Japan, wrestling the final matches of his life before the Japanese audience that was among the first to accept him as a superstar in the early 1970s.
In his younger days, Andre engaged in playful banter with his Japanese followers. As a heel, he would chase them when they tried to take his picture, occasionally breaking a camera when he could catch them. DiBiase said Andre was doing it in good fun and probably paid for the damage he caused, although he suspected the fans preferred being chased to actually getting a photo.
"They wanted to be able to say that Andre the Giant broke their camera," DiBiase said. "It was playfulness. You know, he was the Giant, and he was supposed to be the bad guy in Japan."
Decades later in the fall and winter of 1992, Andre placed both hands on the shoulders of another man in order to steady himself walking to the ring. He participated in tag team matches with his counterpart on the Japanese scene, Shohei "Giant" Baba, in matches booked to allow Andre to spend most of the match standing in his corner, waiting to be tagged.
He did very little in the ring. He looked much older than his 46 years. Any movement at all appeared to be a chore for him. But he made it to the ring and did his job, even when he clearly wasn't up for it.
Dory Funk was with Andre in Japan for some of his final matches in 1992. Funk thinks that due to everything Andre did for the wrestling business, if promoters were offering him money to work a match in his state and he wanted the job, it was Andre's prerogative to accept it.
"Yeah, he needed help, but he was the person that put the people in the seats," Funk said. "So you know, he deserved the help. All the way through his whole career, he put people in the seats."
Funk pointed out that as limited as Andre was in the ring, the fans in the crowd still cheered him on.
"They were so excited that he was there. This is a business. It's personal appearance. So as long as he's attracting fans and giving the people what they want to see, even if it's just because they love him and want to see him, more power to him."
On December 4, 1992, Andre the Giant appeared in his final wrestling match, teaming with Baba and Rusher Kimura to defeat Motoshi Okuma, Haruka Eigen and Masanobu Fuchi at Nippon Budokan in Tokyo. He left Japan and returned to the United States.
Losing the battle
In January 1993, shortly after the new year, Andre welcomed his old pal Tim White for a quick visit at his ranch.
"I was on my way to, I believe, TV tapings in Texas, but I stopped down to the ranch for a couple of days to see how he was doing," White remembered. "He was in terrible shape. The back, everything. He looked bad. But he cheered right up when I was there."
Andre and White had a nice visit. White stayed the night, telling Andre he had to leave at around 7 a.m. the next morning. Always a late sleeper when he was at home, Andre surprised White by telling him he'd get up early the next morning to say goodbye. Andre did just that.
It was the last time White ever saw him.
"I said goodbye, and I recall driving down the dirt road out of the ranch," White said. "To be honest with you, I was tearing up a little bit. I felt so bad for my friend that he was in that pain and looking like that."
Around that time, Andre received sad news from back home in France. His father Boris was very ill. The world-famous Andre Roussimoff would return to his humble beginnings in Molien one last time to help comfort his family.
"Then he called and said that he was staying for his father's funeral," McAuley said.
The last time Andre spoke with Jackie McAuley, it was via another phone call from France. Andre wanted her to know he was staying for his mother's birthday, which was coincidentally the same as Jackie's: January 24.
"I saw pictures of him at his mother's birthday party and I was shocked," she said. "His skin was gray and powdery and his eyes were so deep. Before he went to France, I remember standing next to him at the table and popping his chest going, 'You got your barrel back; you need to lose some weight.'"
In hindsight, McAuley believes the same thing that happened to Andre in the '80s that required him to need fluid drained from around his heart had happened again in early 1993.
On January 27, Andre the Giant returned to the small village of Molien, where he grew up. He spent the day playing cards with some of his oldest friends, people who knew him long before his whirlwind career in pro wrestling began. At day's end, his driver returned him to Hotel de la Tremoille in Paris, where he had been staying. Andre asked the driver to return the next morning and pick him up at 8 a.m. in the lobby. When he did, Andre wasn't there.
Andre "the Giant" Roussimoff died of heart failure some time after lying down in his bed on January 27, 1993. He was 46 years old.
"The funeral director said that Andre's heart just stopped from the weight of the fluid around it," McAuley said.
McAuley got the tragic news via phone call from Frenchy. While a friend of hers handled things like media inquiries and US-based funeral arrangements, McAuley spoke with lawyers handling Andre's will. While trying to honor Andre's wish to be cremated, problems arose in France.
"The lawyer said that they couldn't cremate him there. There wasn't a crematorium that would handle the size of his body and he couldn't be cremated, that they were going to bury him," McAuley said. The lawyer said 'No, that wasn't in his wishes.'"
If Andre was to be cremated, someone had to retrieve his body from France and bring it to the United States so he could be cremated there. Accompanied by her sister, McAuley flew to France. Andre's two worlds were about to collide.
"His family picked us up and brought us out to the little village where Andre grew up," McAuley remembered. "I met his mother. She was so tiny. She was probably a little more than five foot. We spent the evening with them."
McAuley brought Andre's mother some photos of her granddaughter.
"I brought all of Andre's family albums and stuff with me over there," McAuley said. "His mother was just so excited. She had seen the pictures here and there of Robin, but she just hugged the albums and she cried looking at Robin's picture."
Andre's family in France held a funeral service for him, with Andre's body stored in a custom-made casket. After the family service, Andre's body was flown to the United States in that casket. McAuley said Andre's mother was reluctant to release his body, but did it so that Andre's wishes could be honored.
"She wanted him buried next to his daddy who had just died, and I can understand that," McAuley said.
Once Andre's body arrived in North Carolina, he was cremated. A memorial service was held at the AFJ Ranch with several people -- including Frenchy, Jackie, Tim White and Hulk Hogan -- saying a few words about Andre. Frenchy spread Andre's ashes across the ranch from horseback. Andre's casket was present at the memorial service in North Carolina, too, but only for display. McAuley believes that after the service, the casket may have gone into the WWF's possession.
"The New York office has the coffin. Vince [McMahon] sent somebody down and they rented a van and hauled the coffin up there," she said.
As sad as the occasion was, McAuley recalls some lighter moments, too. Andre had received a shipment of wine at the ranch while he was in France, which his friends used for a final toast after the service. At one point, a group of almost 20 of Andre's many girlfriends from his years on the road were found huddled in a small bathroom, exchanging stories about him. Two of them were former fiancees.
"It just blew my mind, and they didn't know each other's names," McAuley said with a laugh. "It was like, 'Oh, Minneapolis, right?! I'm Texas. Well, I'm California! Well, I'm New York!'"
The legend lives on
It has been decades since Andre the Giant's death, but he remains forever ingrained in pro wrestling's history. Everyone from the WWE organization to his former wrestling friends keep his memory alive. He was a human being with flaws, like everybody else, but in the end, Andre was a guy who meant well and treated those he loved with loyalty and respect. He squeezed a lot of living into his 46 years.
"He didn't have as much time as some people, but he got it all in there, for sure," Dory Funk said. "He was always a beautiful guy to get along with. He was a very nice person."
"He was one of the best," Ted DiBiase added. "He never complained. For his size and his stature, not just physically, but respect-wise in the business, he never flaunted it. He was one of the guys."
Jim Duggan will always remember the huge favor Andre did for his career, and even though Andre never took it easy on him in the ring, he knows that was just Andre's way of helping fans accept Duggan as a star.
"I'd get on the plane a lot of times and I'd be sitting next to a business man. He'd say, 'Man, I had a rough day at the office.' I looked at him and said, 'Brother, let me tell you. I just got done with a giant,'" Duggan said with a laugh.
Jackie McAuley chooses to remember her friend Andre for his good-natured humor and his gentle soul.
"The thing that hurts me is when people talk about him like he was just a big dumb type of guy, you know, because he wasn't," she said. "He was a gentleman and he was caring and he was fun-loving. He would pay more attention to the people around him than anybody else that they were in contact with. He was observant. He was smart."
Tim White thinks of his old pal Andre all the time. While nothing can replace having Andre the Giant himself walk into an arena and wow the fans again, he's grateful that WWE does things such as the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal at WrestleMania, to help remind fans about one of pro wrestling's greatest legends.
"The generation of young children today, they really don't know who he was," White said. "That will make them interested to where they can go online to the WWE Network and find out all about Andre. So, I think it's great."
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