Director Jason Hehir and Executive Producer Bill Simmons have many talking about HBO’s documentary “Andre The Giant,” the World Wrestling Federation’s largest spectacle of the 1980s. The documentary examines the wrestler’s life beyond the ring and after the bell, in a compelling character portrait that will appeal to both wrestling fans and non-wrestling fans alike.
Hehir and Simmons are both veterans of the sports documentary world and it shows. Simmons helped create the documentary series “30 for 30” when he was at ESPN and Hehir directed four of the series’ films. Simmons also hosted an HBO sports-centric talk show called “Any Given Wednesday with Bill Simmons” for a single season in 2016.
Viewers of the WWF, later known as the WWE, knew Andre Roussimoff as a ginormous 7’4”, 520 lb giant. He was dubbed “The Eighth Wonder of The World” by the WWF, but few truly knew of where he came from or his life outside the ring.
Roussimoff was born on May 19, 1946 and grew up in Molein, France — a small village 40 miles east of Paris. The documentary offers a detailed description of the town the famed wrestler grew up in. It was a place where everyone knew each other, according to Antoine Roussimoff, one of Rousimoff’s brothers. And everyone knew about Rousimoff, the giant kid down the road.
“Around 16 or 17, that’s when Andre really started to grow,” Jacques Roussimoff, another brother of Andre’s, said. “That’s when my mother started to be concerned because she said it would never stop.”
The documentary speaks on how Roussimoff got his start in the wrestling business. An avid weightlifter, Rousimoff trained with several wrestlers while he worked out for his rugby club in France. One night, the group he hung out with asked him to take the place of an injured wrestler.
In June of 1971, Rousimoff’s fame began to pick up. He wrestled in Montréal for Grand Prix Wrestling and everyone was in awe at the size of the giant. People wanted to see the incredible size of Jean Ferré, the stage-name given to Roussimoff at the time. The wrestling promotions began to sell thousands of tickets at local shows, with fans eagerly anticipating the arrival of Roussimoff in the ring.
The daily obstacles, both physical and social, faced by Roussimoff are detailed in the documentary. WWE Hall of Famer and superstar Terry Bollea, known better as Hulk Hogan, recalled a 14-hour flight from New York to Japan, when Roussimoff was too large for the airplane lavatory.
“When we walked throughout the airport and he got ahead of me, I would hear all the unkind things that people would say about [Andre],” Hogan recalls. “It broke my heart because these people didn’t even know the person he was.”
When the two joined the WWF, they were painted as a dynamic tag team wrestling against villains. This was until 1987, when the WWF decided the more profitable route was to set up Rousimoff as a villain who betrayed Hogan. The heel-turn at Wrestlemania III remains one of the industry’s most memorable matchups, seen by a live audience of 93,000 at the Pontiac Silverdome outside of Detroit. It was the most attended indoor event in North America until a papal mass in 1999.
At Wrestlemania III, there were concerns for Roussimoff’s health, as he had previously had surgery on his back and was said to be walking with a cane weeks before. The fight climaxed with Hogan body slamming the Giant into the canvas and declaring victory.
The remainder of the film focused on the struggles Roussimoff faced following his defeat at Wrestlemania III. His constant injuries forced him to be limited in-ring, which he disliked, as he continued to compete. According to Hogan, Roussimoff loved the business too much and didn’t want to move away from it.
“I still think he had that instinct that he was young and hard,” Hogan said. “He loved this business and he always wanted to be out there.”
Roussimoff died during a trip to visit his sick father, Boris Roussimoff, who passed away days after his son’s arrival. The world famous wrestler decided to stay with his family, but then died of a heart attack at the age of 46 in his hotel in Paris, marking the end of his monumental life. Two months later, he was the sole inductee of the WWE Hall of Fame’s inaugural class.
In a particularly poignant moment near the end of the documentary, WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon considers the Rousimoff’s legacy and the impact it had on McMahon personally. The longtime WWE scion notoriously ended on bad terms with Roussimoff shortly before his death.
“Oh god,” McMahon said, looking off to the side and holding back tears. “He was special.”
Correction: April 22, 2018
This article has been updated to reflect the style standards of The Statesman.