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HBO's Andre The Giant Doc Is Outstanding (Is Bill Simmons Back?)

I can’t remember the last time I anticipated a documentary so much. It feels like years since “Andre The Giant” was announced and not only was HBO Documentaries, the crème de la crème of cable doc providers, producing it but it was about the most unique athlete the 20th century produced—a literal French giant named Andre Roussimoff. It debuted last night on HBO and it was everything I hoped for and more.

It hits all of the expected beats and then some but it also carries a bittersweet undercurrent because of Andre’s star-crossed life. We see a handsome teenager in France whose size invites an invite from peers to wrestle and he basically doesn’t stop for 27 years. In between, Andre lived on the road and wrestled—that was his life (when he wasn’t recuperating from yet another surgery on his always-growing frame).

We first see Andre as a cute baby as his brothers fill us in on his early years. They noted his growth really took off around 16 or 17 years old. Around this time, he started playing rugby and trained with some wrestlers who shared their expertise with him. When one of them was injured, they asked Andre to fill in. “I can’t do that, I’ve never been in a ring in my life” was his retort.

But soon enough, the 6’9″, 309 lb. teenager knew his way around the ring and decided he wanted to be more than a farmer for his life. He wanted money, something different and smelled the opportunity before him. “I want to be somebody”, Andre said presciently.

After making his bones in France as a lumberjack character (of course the French called him the Giant Fairy), he hit Monaco and Japan before finally landing in North America to toil in the Montreal circuit. It wasn’t long before the now 7’4″ (?) grappler found himself working the Midwest circuits and it was in Chicago where he was given his new moniker by an American promoter who knew “the Giant Fairy” wouldn’t play in the States. During these days, he also was given arguably the best hype in rasslin’ history: The Eighth Wonder Of The World.

This is where the story really picks up strength, not just because of the epic old-school wrestling clips, but also because of the caliber of the talking heads. Hulk Hogan, Jerry Lawler, Ric Flair, Gene Okerlund, and Vince McMahon (the doc was made in conjunction with the WWE) all show up to add their perspective. The level of reverence that Hulk Hogan holds for Andre is actually endearing. However you feel about the Hulkster, he’s certainly appears to have gained a measure of humility and self-awareness in recent years. His love and admiration for his idol is so deep that he would only say “the girls like Andre” when pressed for info. I mean, Andre died 25 years ago and Hogan is still afraid tell swordsman stories about him. That’s respect. (And when he says girls, he means size queens.)

Everybody spoke about his generosity as a wrestler and how he would sell the shit out of his opponents to make them look good though they’d never win. But if Andre didn’t like you? Hoo-boy. Per Hogan, Andre abhorred Randy Savage and would actually beat the fuck out of him during matches as the video evidence shows. Legit chops. Rag-dolling. Yanking by the hair. Andre squatting his gigantic ass in the Macho Man’s face then sitting there might be the funniest clip in the doc. He had to put the Iron Shiek in his place as well. But Big John Studd really pissed in Andre’s cereal and Andre once sent him running from the ring in fear per Vince.

But the real standout was Andre’s handler, Tim White. He has insight that Andre’s peer lacked. After breaking locker room protocol (i.e. he entered as a non-wrestler), he initially pissed Andre off. But he soon won him over and Andre told Vince he wanted Tim to be his right-hand man. They soon became best friends and were soon “off and running”.

By this time, in the early 1980s, Andre the Giant was one of the most recognizable people on the planet (duh). He started showing up on Letterman and chumming around with celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger (who Andre placed on an armoire like a small child after Arnold insisted on picking up a dinner tab). Hollywood was inevitable and he made his debut as the beloved Fezzik in the 1987 fantasy classic “A Princess Bride”. Director Rob Reiner and cast mates Billy Crystal, Robin Wright, and Cary Elwes fondly remembered their co-worker from about 32 years ago, indicative of the love and respect they still hold for Andre. Miraculously, Crystal doesn’t mention the Yankees or wear a Yankees hat. And Elwes looks…different.

The doc spends more time on farting than BLAZING SADDLES but that part provided some laughs and a nice light touch. Plus, it does make you wonder just how loud it must have been. I mean, think of some of your own with a high level of bass over the years. Now imagine it from a giant.

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Oh, and the drinking. It’s almost redundant to talk about how much booze he could put away by now. Sure, it was to party and unwind after a gig. But it was also to relieve the constant pain he was in due to acromegaly, which Andre opted to not treat, as if to ride the legend of Andre until he could no more. “The Lord made me the way that I am” so that’s how he’d live his life. Andre never saw a doctor until he broke his ankle. The injury would sideline him at a time of big change.

It was during this time when the WWF was gaining in popularity thanks to a shiny, tan, blonde, and muscular new superstar and cable TV. This part of the doc goes into great detail to show how the outfit essentially becomes a monopoly during the ascension of Hulk Hogan. So may feel it gets a little Hulk-heavy but there was wrestling before Hulk Hogan and there’s wrestling after Hulk Hogan—he was that huge in the 1980s (and like I mentioned, the WWE had a hand in here so they want to sell their mythology as well).

The Wrestlemania III portion was milked for everything it was worth and I ate it up like Santarpio’s after a nickel bid. Andre wouldn’t tell Hogan whether he agreed to put him over or not (read: allow Hogan to beat him) and Hogan was a nervous wreck. Hogan wrote a script, left the ending blank, and had it brought to Andre. Shakespearean might not be an overstatement for this part. Hogan goes into blow-by-blow of what happens and just speaks to Andre’s character. Even though it’s a 30+ year athletic soap opera, I still got goosebumps watching it.

The final section is kind of a bummer as Andre breaks down and has to mail it in/get exploited before retiring for good. But you’re heartened to know that he went out on his own terms and spent his last days with his family who loves him very much.

Whether you don’t know a Figure Four from Connect Four, make time for this doc. There will simply never be another Andre the Giant.

A few more buds for your Giant-size bowl…

*The Circuit Era montage scored to KC and the Sunshine Band’s “I’m Your Boogie Man” was phenomenal and I could’ve watched hours of it.

*”Taking a fart”? Is that some new Mean Gene lingo?

*Hulk Hogan was an Irish ethnic character? News to me.

*Those early McMahon clips remind of Young Joe Piscopo.

*I was lucky enough to see Andre wrestle at the (real) Boston Garden a bunch of times before I discovered rubbing out silkworms. And it was ALWAYS a spectacle. You never took for granted you were seeing a 7+ foot man grapplin’ in the squared circle. I was even luckier to have a neighbor who sold popcorn there. In those glorious non-corporate, non-snitch times, he would bring me and my brother with him when he cashed out at the end of the night on the 150 Causeway side of the skywalk where all the wrestlers exited after the show. And we would hang there for autographs and pictures without getting our balls busted.

Jimmy Snuka. Tito Santana. Paul Orndorff. It was heaven. But when Andre the Giant walked out, it went to a different level. There was just nothing or nobody like him anywhere. He always stopped for us, even if it was brief. I long ago lost a dollar bill he signed simply ANDRE. But I always hung on to the pics because, to be blunt, they were pretty fucking good for a pair of adolescent boys. Now that I know from the doc just how much pain and sadness went along with the glory and fame, the picture below takes on even more poignance. Hiding a fresh wound under a towel, Andre is grinning at a starstruck young kid snapping away on his Kodak Disc, finding a small joy on his endless itinerary. Rest well, Andre. You were the best.

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