As I watched the HBO documentary on Andre The Giant, I couldn't help but get emotional and start to cry.
The larger than life pro wrestling legend was well-known for being able to cover a man's face with his hand, shake an opponent like a rag doll, and drink anyone under the table after a fight. The epitome of a freak of nature, Andre Rene Roussimoff was also a tortured soul. A man beside the modern world desperately trying to fit in and find a comfortable place to sit, both literally and figuratively.
The documentary, produced by ESPN 30 for 30 guru Bill Simmons, provides a look at the man that many didn't know about. If you think all the details about the man's life already exist in your head, think again. As a hardcore wrestling fan who came in right as Andre was leaving the sport, I had no idea he was in so much pain and covered in anguish during his prominent years. The great thing about documentaries is they illuminate parts of history that were previously left quiet, like turning over rocks others didn't bother to lift.
World-renowned success was a double-edged sword for Roussimoff, who grew up in a small village in France and sought refuge in the United States in a small town in North Carolina. He loved the high-life of being a champion of the sport and a guy who paved the way for guys like Hulk Hogan, but he couldn't handle the downward spiral of a rigorous and unforgiving sport. Wrestling will swallow you whole and spit you out dry. Andre found that out the hard way.
He wasn't the most articulate guy in the world and didn't give in-depth interviews, so the documentary relies on stories from the likes of Hogan, Vince McHahon, and other wrestlers who shared the ring and room with him. To anyone in the sport, Andre was someone you needed respect from in order to operate in the sport. Hogan and McHahon's words shine the brightest, because they knew him the best, friends in a sport that didn't have many.
Seeing the highlights of Andre the Giant in the ring brought back warm memories. He'd climb over the top rope, toss grown men around like twigs, and simply loomed over the entire arena. He made wrestling a must-watch event before big personalities like Ric Flair came in and dominated. He didn't have makeup or a big act preceding his arrival; Andre just walked in like doom and did his thing. His appeal didn't need any extra CGI work.
However, his world outside the ring was far more fascinating. He knew the clock ticked faster for him than others, so he lived it up. The man could drink a case of wine and put away a 24 pack of beers. He made an Irishman look like a pretender at the bar, and would steal away the man's woman too. He had a slow-boil sense of humor and loved to smile and hang with the guys, but quietly harbored a pain from the ugly things strangers would whisper about him.
You see, in this world, someone can be larger than life and manage to be vulnerable. When he walked through an airport, Andre heard the jokes and comedy being dispensed at his disposal. He hated it. He once said to his handler that he'd love to live in his shoes for a day, walking around as a normal-sized human being without the hardships that plagued his life.
Hearing Billy Crystal, Rob Reiner, and Cary Elwes talk about Andre's work on The Princess Bride is enlightening and saddening at the same time. This was around six years before his death, so he was in constant pain and couldn't do the simplest of stunts. When you saw him slam Elwes' hero up against the rock in an early fight scene, it wasn't Andre, but a stunt double. He couldn't catch Robin Wright's princess in a scene, so they hooked her up on cables and lowered her into his monstrous hands. It's sad to hear those things, but opens a new bank account on his legend.
The part that made me most emotional was Hogan talking candidly about their big fight at Wrestlemania 3, a match that even Hogan had no idea how it would end until Andre literally told him in the ring. Partners in the sport for life and friends away from it, Hogan revealed details about the legendary match that put a whole new scope on it. Hogan choreographed the fight out on a legal pad, but Andre wouldn't reveal who would win until the two were in the ring. Physically compromised but unwilling to walk away easily, Andre passed the torch to Hogan that night, signaling the end of his career. The fallout wasn't kind.
The tragedy in his life far exceeded the exploits of his ring success. I hardly knew the troubles and peril that Andre encountered, and you will feel it watching this film. A casual wrestling fan can come here without an ounce of knowledge on the subject and be moved to tears. Don't believe me? Try it.
Rarely do wrestlers leave the sport on their own terms. They are usually pushed out, their expiration date being unrecognizable to anyone but them. Andre wasn't ready to go, but knew the end was near at the same time. His entire life is a bittersweet dance around fate. As McHahon pointed out, "he knew he wasn't long for this world." Andre died at the age of 46 in a hotel in France. He was alone.
Sadly that's how most wrestlers go. Mr. Perfect. British Bulldog. Macho Man Randy Savage. After giving so much of their life to strangers in crowded arenas, they pass away in a quiet place with no one around to look after their final moments. Again, the sport is a relentless grind that churns even the sweetest souls. Andre was no different.
When you see something both miraculous and terrifying, often the words "something else" come out. Andre The Giant was something else, but he was also so much more. He wasn't just a wrestling icon who made the sport marketable across the entire world; Andre was a fragile human being who struggled to be comfortable in his own skin. That was illuminating to me.
If you find the time, check out this documentary. It plays out like a Greek tragedy. There's a rise and a fall. You'll laugh when Andre covers Gene Okerlund's entire face with his hand, be excited when he tries to squeeze Macho Man's head off, and then be saddened when you see pictures of him during his final days.
No one wants to see a legend fall. It's never pretty. Most people would rather remember the greats at their highest. We want to remember Muhammad Ali stand over Sonny Liston rather than Larry Holmes destroy him. We'd rather see Willie Mays make an over-the-top catch with the Giants rather than him striking out endlessly with the Mets. We'd rather see Albert Pujols wreck Brad Lidge's mind than the man who often limps down to first base these days. Legends never die in many people's minds, but the truth is they all die eventually.
Andre The Giant's rise was incredible, but his demise was fascinating. You should go watch it.