In the hyperbole-soaked arena of pro-wrestling, Andre the Giant was dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and billed as 7-foot-4 and 500 pounds. But nobody truly knows how big the Frenchman, born Andre Roussimoff in 1946, really was. He rarely went to the doctor and record-keeping was nearly nonexistent in wrestling.
“That part of the mythology died with him,” says Jason Hehir, director of “Andre the Giant,” the highly anticipated HBO documentary, airing Tuesday at 10 p.m., about the larger-than-life grappler.
“We know 7-foot-4 is exaggerated,” says Hehir, referencing a photo of Andre appearing to be around the same height as Wilt Chamberlain, who was 7-foot-1. “There are certain questions we can never know the answer to.”
The film, which tracks the gentle giant’s incredible journey from the French countryside to international stardom, explores how limited Andre was by his size — the result of acromegaly, a condition in which a pituitary gland tumor produces excess growth hormone.
For an appearance on “Late Night with David Letterman” in 1984, “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,” says Hehir.
Andre the Giant is interviewed ringside in this undated photo.HBO
Andre was unable to fit inside an airplane lavatory. Instead, he was forced to relieve himself in a bucket while a curtain was drawn around his imposing frame.
“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,” says Hehir. “He was interested in music, but he couldn’t play the piano or the guitar because his fingers were too big.”
But his massive frame allowed for other marvels. In the film, WWE honcho Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan describe the “deep roar” of his legendary farts. He once drank 106 beers with fellow wrestler Ric Flair and, on the set of “The Princess Bride,” he downed 20 bottles of Beaujolais.
According to Hehir, Andre drank not only because he liked to be the life of the party, but also because he was in pain — emotionally and physically. “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,” he says.
Acromegaly can lead to enlarged organs, limited mobility and headaches, among other physical issues. Given the opportunity to have the brain tumor removed and ultimately live a much more comfortable — and perhaps longer — life, he declined.
“I am not supernatural. I’m just myself,” Andre says in an interview featured in the film. “So, what God gave me, I use it to make a living.”
Andre died alone in a Paris hotel in 1993 at age 46 from congestive heart failure, but Hehir doesn’t want his film to evoke melancholy.
“I hope they say his story was uplifting in the end … He was dealt a pretty bad hand, and he made it into something people could enjoy all around the world for decades.”