Like most great bio-docs about world famous figures, “Andre the Giant” is a wonderful reminder of what we already knew about the legendary wrestler — but more important and more valuable, it creates a fuller and richer and more insightful portrayal of the man than we’ve ever seen before.
Premiering Tuesday night on HBO, “Andre the Giant” is directed by the talented Jason Hehir, whose resume includes some of the finest of the ESPN “30 for 30” docs, including “The ’85 Bears” and “The Fab Five” (the story of Michigan’s star-crossed 1991 recruiting class).
In this meticulously constructed and comprehensive look at one of the truly unique and globally famous sports/entertainment figures of the 1970s and 1980s, director Hehir and co-producers HBO Sports, WWE and Bill Simmons feature interviews with an amazing array of key figures in Andre’s life.
We hear from family members, including Andre’s brothers Antoine and Jacques; former handlers and friends; WWE mastermind Vince McMahon; Andre’s longtime friend and WrestleMania III opponent Hulk Hogan; and even director Rob Reiner and actors Cary Elwes, Robin Wright and Billy Crystal, sharing their memories of working with Andre on “The Princess Bride.”
There’s also a bounty of archival footage and still photos, stretching back to Andre’s early days as one Andre Rene Roussimoff, who was born in Coulommiers, France, in 1946, and was a normal-sized child and adolescent — until he experienced an extended growth spurt in his mid- and late teens due to a condition known as “acromegaly,” or “giantism.”
Andre started out as a freakishly tall but relatively lean figure, wrestling in Europe and Japan and Canada before becoming a regular on the regional U.S. circuit — and then a national star when McMahon and the WWF took pro wrestling to unprecedented heights.
In the 1980s, “Andre the Giant,” billed as 7-foot-4 and somewhere around 500 lbs. (both figures might have been slight exaggerations), became one of the most popular figures on the exploding pro wrestling circuit. Even though Andre was nimble and athletic (before suffering injuries to his ankles, knees and back) and had been quite the acrobat in the ring for years, McMahon turned him into a plodding strongman who tossed his opponents around like rag dolls with little expression.
As McMahon created an in-ring and onscreen legend about Andre, the real Andre was creating his own legend behind the scenes.
Arnold Schwarzenegger tells a story about haggling with Andre over who would pay a restaurant tab, only for Andre to pick up Arnold and deposit him atop an armoire in the restaurant.
Andre was a drinker of legendary consumption, routinely downing dozens of beers and countless bottles of wine on any given night.
“I was with him the night he drank 106 beers,” says Richard Morgan Fliehr, the former wrestler and manager known as Ric Flair.
That might seem like an insane exaggeration, were it not for the countless and similar stories from other interviewees, including other wrestlers, not to mention the “Princess Bride” team.
By the time the ever-calculating, nearly robotically uncaring McMahon came up with the ingenious plan of turning the likable Andre into a villain who would turn on his longtime friend and frequent tag-team partner Hulk Hogan for “WrestleMania III” in 1987, Andre was so crippled by myriad injuries he could barely move.
Hulk Hogan, aka Terry Bollea, is reflective and honest as he recounts the build-up to an event that attracted more than 93,000 fans to the Silverdome and several million more via pay-per-view and closed-circuit venues. He shows us the handwritten moves he suggested for the match, knowing Andre had limited mobility. Hulk/Terry has hardly been the most believable and likable character over the last 20+ years, but he comes across as sincere and true here.
Meanwhile, “Princess Bride” director Rob Reiner tells us the most difficult scenes involving Andre were the actually the wrestling sequences, because the poor guy could barely move. Robin Wright recalls how she had to be suspended on wires for a key scene in which her character jumps into the arms of Andre’s Fezzik, because Andre — who routinely tossed 300-pound opponents all over the ring — didn’t have the strength to catch her.
We learn about Andre’s sanctuary for many a year: a ranch in North Carolina, of all places, where he could be himself and not be the subject of constant staring. We meet his daughter, who is sweet and forgiving and understanding about why she didn’t see her father when she was growing up.
Mostly, we have a fuller understanding of why Andre’s 46 years on this planet had such a lasting effect on so many people.
HBO Sports and WWE present a documentary directed by Jason Hehir. Running time: 85 minutes. Premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday on HBO.