Keeping in touch with my low-culture side, I watched the recent HBO documentary about Andre the Giant. I took it with a grain of salt because it seems to have been done with the cooperation of the major wrestling organization, Vince McMahon’s WWE, and my gut tells me that it would be foolish to treat a wrestling promoter’s words as veracious. Still, I enjoyed it.

Andre Roussimoff, born in 1946 in Molien, France, a small farming village, started to grow excessively in his teenage years. And he continued to grow and then grow some more. Perhaps if his condition had then been diagnosed, it could have been treated. Only as an adult, however, was he diagnosed as having acromegaly, a disorder of excess growth hormone, often caused by a tumor in the pituitary gland. Andre just continued to grow.

Andre’s major fame comes from professional wrestling, although those who aren’t attracted to this spectacle may know him as the actor who portrayed the lovable giant Fezzik in the movie The Princess Bride. For a decade or two, he was probably the biggest worldwide star in professional wrestling, and the documentary does a reasonable job in describing that ascent as well as the ascent of pro wrestling itself from small, regional organizations to the dominant national WWE of today.

The film was filled with anecdotes about Andre—his strength, his gentleness, his attractiveness to women (although something was left out here), his legendary drinking, his graciousness, his jovialness, how much he liked to laugh, his good friendships. The documentary also provided glimpses of hardships and pain.

At the beginning of his career, because each pro wrestling operation was a regional attraction, Andre’s life was one of constant travel. He was on the road, the documentary said, for 300 nights a year. This much travel would be uncomfortable for anyone, but it is hard to imagine how difficult it must have been for him. The HBO production had a clip of Andre saying that he could never be sure that a hotel would have a bed big enough for him. You can’t trust wrestling statistics, but he was billed as 7 feet 4 inches tall and weighing 520 pounds. Those numbers were probably exaggerated, but he was huge as was clear in films when he stood next to others or held a normal-sized object in his hand. One of the interviewees pointed out that Andre took frequent fourteen-hour flights to Japan but that he could not fit into an airliner’s restroom. Curtains would have to be drawn in the back of the plane and he would urinate into a bucket that would then be emptied into the toilet by someone else. Would you ever get used to that? Another clip of Andre pointed out something I never thought about. He said that society now tries to make accommodations for the blind and disabled, but we have not tried to accommodate the giants among us.

There were many stories about his legendary drinking. On a routine night he would drink twenty-four bottles of beer or seven or eight bottles of wine. Some days and nights, he drank over 100 beers or three or four cases of wine. These stories were told in amazed, almost admiring tones, and it all seemed faintly humorous, but then one of his nonwrestling friends said that part of the reason he drank so much was his pain. His joints and back could not handle his growth, and as the years went on he had trouble even walking.

Andre lived knowing that his condition meant that he would die young. Nothing indicated that he lived regularly with morbid thoughts, but how could he not?

Perhaps all this was best summed up by a friend who said that every so often Andre, world-famous and rich, would simply say to him, “Sometimes I wish I would be you. I wish I could go to the corner store without being noticed.”

Andre died of heart failure alone in a Paris hotel room when he was 46.

(concluded onJune1)

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