Los Angeles Times – March 7, 1993
By Chris Dufresne
In the modern fable, the giant is felled not by a slingshot or a squadron of fighter planes, but by his heart.
Imagine that, a muscle taking Andre Rousimoff down.
He was Andre The Giant in life and thereafter, a wonder of the world and sometimes an imposition on the rest of us down below. When he laid his head down for the last time Jan. 27 in Paris, 12 days after he buried his father, Andre might have thought his burden over.
No more stooping through doorways, no more slack-jawed gapes at the sight of his huge head and hands, no more children running in fear.
No more business trips to undersized Japan, of all places, to pick up his oversized tailor-made clothes.
No more shoes, size 26.
Yet, Andre would pose problems even in death. When they finally busted down his hotel door in Paris to discover Andre dead, at age 46 of an apparent heart attack, the next thought was what to do with him.
The Giant instructed in his will that his body be cremated within 48 hours, the ashes to be sprinkled over his 200-acre ranch in Ellerbe, N.C.
Andre was born in Grenoble, France, spoke fluent French and wolfed down seven-course gourmet meals as though they were appetizers. He washed it all down with vats of expensive Burgundy but, in the end, his own country could not accommodate him.
The phone call, from France, rang at the Ellerbe ranch. The voice insisted there was not a crematorium large enough to handle The Giant, who was 6 feet 10 and 555 pounds when he died.
Could someone please come get The Giant?
Jackie Bernard, a longtime friend who lived at the ranch with her husband, Frenchy, flew overseas to arrange transport of Andre’s body back home to North Carolina.
There were no complications at the airport, although there was a time when even the planes were afraid of Andre. Frank Valois, Andre’s caretaker during The Giant’s barnstorming days as the world’s most famous professional wrestler in the 1970s, remembers that chartered flights were often grounded when Andre stepped on the Tarmac.
“Most of the time they didn’t even want to take him,” Valois recalls.
The plane took Andre this time. The last time.
Andre the Giant was cremated in North Carolina on Feb. 11, more than two weeks after he had requested.
Lucky for us, Andre was always a patient man.
“It’s a good thing he didn’t have a temper,” Valois says, “or there would have been a lot of accidents.”
In the final months, The Giant moved with great difficulty, having buckled under his own weight. He suffered from acromegaly, or “giantism,” a disease in which the body secretes large amounts of the growth hormone, causing continual growth to the head, hands and feet. Andre the Giant, who towered above most at nearly 7 feet, walked with a stoop near the end. He had undergone surgery in 1986 to relieve pressure to his weakened spine. To perform the procedure, surgeons in England had to construct oversized instruments.
Terry Funk, a pro wrestling great, toured Japan with Andre last November.
“He was in a great deal of pain by then,” Funk remembered.
Andre had shown Funk the X-rays of his recent knee surgeries.
“They had taken out huge chunks of bone,” Funk said. “I mean chunks.”
Andre, a man of moods, was at times a loner, especially near the end. He never married. A 13-year old daughter he fathered was never discussed. Because of his disease, doctors estimated Andre would not live to age 50. To some, it explained The Giant’s unfathomable ability to consume alcohol. His fate sealed, it was speculated, Andre drank to numb the reality. Except that when Andre stepped to the bar, reality never stood a chance.
Once, in the 1970s, Funk pulled up a bar-stool next to The Giant. “I swear he drank 100 beers one night in Amarillo, Texas,” Funk said. Frenchy Bernard, Andre’s closest friend at the time of his death, testifies he saw The Giant drink 72 double shots of vodka at one sitting.
Then, he stood up.
“And walked straighter than hell,” Bernard said.
Another time, Andre did not get up. It has been told that he passed out in a hotel lobby after drinking 119 beers. Too big to move, friends draped him with a piano cover and passed him off as furniture while The Giant slept it off.
In his younger years, Andre seemed resigned to his fate.
“He had it on his mind all the time, that he was going to die young,” Valois contends.
The longer he survived, though, the more Andre had doubts about his acromegaly.
“There were reports that said he did have it and reports that said he didn’t,” Jackie Bernard said. “He chose to believe that he didn’t.”
The Giant often spoke about what it would be like to be normal. He could not play the piano because one of his enormous fingers engaged three keys. His wrists, as thick as some lowland gorillas, measured a foot in circumference.
It bothered The Giant that he scared children.
“Often when I go to home of people who have small children, the children will run from me, even though they have seen me on television,” Andre once told a writer. “I understand why they do this, but it is a sad feeling for me, even so.”
During his heyday in the 1970s, when he was the most famous wrestler in the world, a label he would later surrender only to Hulk Hogan, Andre was earning an estimated $400,000 per year. He was an international celebrity.
He was a good enough athlete to have received a tryout offer from the Washington Redskins. Andre declined, apparently unwilling to take a pay cut. Although he never lifted weights, his strength was awesome.
“I would say he was the strongest man in the world,” Valois said. “You won’t believe this, but one time a guy had a flat tire and (Andre) just lifted the car up while he changed the wheel. It wasn’t a big car, but still, it was a car.”
Andre transcended the sometimes strange world of pro wrestling into the mainstream. He appeared on “The Tonight Show,” “The Six Million Dollar Man,” and other shows.
Andre most cherished his performance as “Fezzik” the kindly giant in Rob Reiner’s 1987 film “The Princess Bride.”
Andre carried a videotape of the movie when he traveled.
On his November trip to Japan, a country in which he was worshiped, the Giant screened several showings of “The Princess Bride.”
“He loved that movie,” Funk said. “We’d watch it every third day. And everyone watched the movie. You didn’t say no.”
Andre was an anomaly in professional wrestling in that most of the incredible stories about him were true.
Yes, he really could pass a silver dollar through his ring. While other wrestlers changed their names and concocted outlandish personal histories to hone their images, it was enough for Andre to walk into a ring in his bikini wrestling briefs.
Andre’s friends held a memorial service at the Ellerbe ranch recently. Many of Andre’s friends in this country were unable to attend the original service for him, in France.
Had the service been open to the public, fans would have mobbed the celebrity wrestlers, which included Hogan, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, Brutus Beefcake, the Fabulous Moolah, Ivan and Nikita Koloff, and World Wrestling Federation czar Vince McMahon.
But this time, there would be no gawkers. The service was by invitation only. A North Carolina Highway patrolman stood guard on the dirt road that leads to the 200-acre ranch. About 200 people came. Andre’s life might have seemed a circus.
But his death would not.