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New book on Andre The Giant uncovers man behind the myth

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During the 1970s, Andre was the biggest international box office attraction in the business as well as the highest paid. Provided photo/WWE

Perhaps no other figure in the history of professional wrestling has inspired more awe than the man known as “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”

The phrase “larger than life” could have been coined for Andre The Giant, who in terms of both physical stature and personality, fit that bill to a tee. He was a pop culture phenomenon that transcended the wrestling business like few others had ever done.

The first inductee in the WWE Hall of Fame, Andre managed to captivate audiences wherever he went during a magical, mystical career, but one that also had its share of pain and heartache.

Twenty-seven years after his death, Andre Roussimoff remains an enduring icon in not only wrestling, but in pop culture as well. Yet much about Andre’s life and career has remained a mystery, and in many cases, facts have been closer to fiction.

So why has so much written about Andre, stories popularized over the years, been historically inaccurate and even mytholgized with the passing of time?

A new book on the life of Andre The Giant, written by acclaimed wrestling authors Bertrand Hébert and Pat Laprade, debunks many of those tales and myths, untangling fact from fiction.

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“The Eighth Wonder of the World: The True Story of Andre The Giant” is a definitive biography of one of the most successful and beloved wrestlers of all time. Provided/ECW Press

While there have been books, films, documentaries and graphic novels on this intriguing subject, “The Eighth Wonder of the World: The True Story of Andre The Giant” is the definitive treatise. Hébert and Laprade were relentless in their exhaustive research, providing a detailed account of Andre’s life, chronicling it from beginning to end.

Perhaps the most arduous task for the authors was getting the facts straight. In the process, they discovered that so much that had been written and documented about Andre was fraught with error.

With pro wrestling having been a secretive society since its inception, largely taking place behind closed doors, accuracy has been a tenuous term. Stories are passed down from generation to generation, some reaching mythical proportion. Even Andre admittedly went along with some of them. In his case, though, he didn’t have to exaggerate much.

The late, great Ray “The Crippler” Stevens once said, “If it’s a story worth telling, it’s worth coloring.”

As historians, though, the authors wanted to get it right. And they did a masterful job in accomplishing that giant feat.

It wasn’t their first collaboration. Hébert and Laprade also teamed up for the excellent “Mad Dogs, Midgets and Screw Jobs” and “Mad Dog: The Maurice Vachon Story.” In addition, Hébert co-wrote Pat Patterson’s biography, “Accepted: How the First Gay Superstar Changed WWE” with Patterson. Laprade also worked as a field producer for 2018’s HBO documentary “Andre The Giant” and co-authored “Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women’s Wrestling” with Dan Murphy.

Hébert and Laprade’s latest, however, just might be the writing duo’s finest to date. No stone was left unturned, and the authors went to great lengths to track down and gain exclusive interviews with Andre’s family and friends, those who knew him best, to learn about the real man behind the myth. Being French also was a definite advantage for the authors interviewing family members of the French-born Andre Roussimoff.

The book, published by the Toronto-based ECW Press, traces Andre’s journey from Europe to the United States, and all points in between, connecting the dots and filling in the spaces of his incredible life.

A traveling attraction, but much more than just a novelty act, Andre was a major celebrity throughout the world.

Japan, where he wrestled from 1972 until the end of his career in 1992, was instrumental in his early development. Appearing there as a heel, it would prepare him for his later work with Hulk Hogan on the big stage.

Montreal, though, may have played the most important role in Andre’s life and career. It was in that French-Canadian city where Andre was arguably the most vital cog in the success of the wrestling business in Canada during the 1970s. It was also there that he achieved North American stardom that would pave the way to every major wrestling promotion in America. Located in the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec, Montreal became a second home to Andre.

Paul Vachon, a close friend who was one of the owners of the promotion in Montreal, would serve as a bridge in delivering Andre to Vince McMahon Sr., who saw Andre as a major attraction and knew how to market him as such. But it wasn’t any of the McMahons who gave him the name “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” That had come years earlier when a Grand Prix ring announcer in Montreal christened him with the moniker.

Paul Vachon and brother Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon also sent Andre to Verne Gagne’s Minnesota-based AWA. For years it had been said that legendary French star Ed Carpentier had discovered Andre back in his homeland. That also wasn’t true. Initially Gagne also didn’t have much interest in using Andre as a talent on his mat roster, even though he had first seen Andre in Japan in 1970.

Eleven chapters and more than 100 pages are devoted to Andre’s life and career prior to his emergence in the WWWF in 1973.

The 420-page hardback volume includes an impressive collection of more than a hundred photos, many of which have never been published before, and others of his early days, courtesy of Andre’s family members.

Engrossing and fascinating, this comprehensive, data-driven biography does nothing to diminish the legendary status of Andre. If anything, it makes him even more of a truly extraordinary figure.

Tall tales

The authors meticulously chip away at many of the misconceptions, stretched truths and downright fabrications regarding Andre, particularly those manufactured and promoted by the WWE publicity machine. Hébert and Laprade begin their book using one of the biggest matches and biggest events in WWE history as a prime example.

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Andre The Giant was honored by his peers as the first member of the newly founded WWE Hall of Fame following his death. He was the solo inductee that year. Provided photo/WWE

At Wrestlemania 3 in 1987, “the match and everything surrounding it were the culmination of every myth and legend ever heard about Andre coming to a head on the biggest stage he ever performed on,” they point out.

But Andre was neither 7-4 nor 520 pounds at any point in his life. Nor was he was from Grenoble or the French Alps. It was far from the first match ever between the two wrestlers, as had been hyped, and it certainly wasn’t the first time Andre had been slammed.

As for the oft-reported record-breaking crowd of 93,000 at the Pontiac Silverdome that day, the reality was closer to 78,000 paid attendance.

It was one of the biggest matches of Andre’s career at a moment in his life that was the most painful. Contrary to what had been widely documented in the past, Andre underwent back surgery after Wrestlemania 3, not before, a testament to his ability to go through with a match that marked one of the seminal moments in WWE history.

Andre’s height had widely varied over the years. With wrestling statistics prone to exaggeration, it’s not surprising that promotions would stretch his size beyond realistic figures. His family never measured him at home. A number of wrestlers estimated him at around seven feet tall, while some sportswriters and other athletes pegged him at around six-nine. An obituary in the Montreal newspaper mentioned that he was measured upon his death at six-foot-10, with the loss of a couple inches attributed to back issues over the years.

Still, there was no denying that Andre was a true giant, appearing deceptively tall because he was proportioned so differently than any other man his size, with relatively short legs, long torso and huge head. His wrists measured a foot in circumference. He boasted a 71-inch chest and monster 16-inch hands that made beer cans look like thimbles. He wore a size 22 shoe.

Stories were exaggerated as years went by. Even, admittedly, by Andre himself. As historians, the authors wanted to get it right.

Andre The Man

There are plenty of light moments in the book, but the authors don’t shy away from taking Andre to task when necessary. While he was a giant of a man, he was still a human who had flaws and imperfections, and one who made mistakes along the way.

Andre never really got to know his only child. “Maybe had he lived longer, I might have had a closer relationship with him,” daughter Robin Christensen-Roussimoff said. “Perhaps he would’ve attended my graduation, or been proud of my successes. I’ll never get to really know who he was as a person.”

For most of his life Andre battled acromegaly, a hormonal disorder responsible for his immense size. His enormous proportions would become a blessing and a curse.

A good athlete and remarkably agile for his size in his younger years, he slowed considerably in the 1980s as his weight ballooned and his disease took hold. The effects of acromegaly, which caused continual growth to the head, hands and feet, eventually wore down his body, and drinking masked the excruciating back pain that was the result of his sustained growth. His spine weakened, his movements became labored, and he was forced to wear a back brace.

Doctors who had diagnosed him told Andre that he probably wouldn’t reach 40. Once he understood that he had to live twice as fast as most men, he indulged his voracious appetites for alcohol and food, and began drinking heavily because he knew he would die young.

“He used to drink to numb himself from the reality that he wouldn’t live long in this world,” the late Killer Kowalski once said.

But the drinking temporarily eased the pain. It helped him keep going. Until it couldn’t.

While it isn’t clear whether Andre fully understood his initial diagnosis, which was given in Japan during the ‘70s, he was diagnosed again by an American doctor nearly a decade later while undergoing ankle surgery.

He didn’t have the surgery that would have allowed him to live longer, perhaps out of fear of losing what made him special to the wrestling business and what made him famous around the world.

To Andre, it wasn’t an option. Wrestling had become a sanctuary for Andre; it was the only place he felt truly accepted by his peers.

“He felt wrestling was his love, and people in that locker room were his family,” said friend and WWE official Tim White.

As tragic irony would have it, though, the disease that made him a giant and an international icon would also cause his death at the age of 46.

Lovable giant

Andre’s life was far from a fairy tale. Despite his fame and fortune, he often felt like a freak in a carnival sideshow.

“If I could take your place for a week, I would give you everything I had,” he once told White.

“It’s difficult wherever I go,” Andre lamented. “They don’t build anything for big people. They have everything for blind people, for cripple people, for some other people, but not for big people. So, we have to fit in there and it’s not too easy all the time.”

It was a lonely world being Andre The Giant, and the final years of his life were cruel.

Knowing his time was limited, and with his pain increasing, Andre decided to live life as fully as he could. Spending his remaining days in a wheelchair or on crutches when he wasn’t performing in a match in Mexico or Japan, his final bout took place just weeks before his passing.

Perhaps the most poignant piece of Andre’s story was when he was filming the 1987 Rob Reiner movie “The Princess Bride.” Playing Fezzik, the lovable giant with a heart of gold, was not a stretch for Andre. It reminded him of his humble beginnings on a farm in France. In many ways, the character in the fairy tale was much like Andre the man.

William Goldman, who wrote the novel of the same name, had even set his sights on Andre playing that role years earlier. The director Reiner felt the same when offering the role to Andre. “He was perfect for the part. He looked exactly right,” said Reiner, who considered Andre an important piece of the puzzle, without whom he couldn’t have made the cult classic. Andre’s sensitive size, he added, came to define the cliche of the “gentle giant.”

It was an unforgettable, show-stealing performance that endeared Andre to the next generation of fans, and one that would forever cement his unique place in popular culture.

“Andre was a simple man from a small village in France. Filming that movie gave him the chance to be that man again,” write the authors.

A living, breathing giant with a heart of gold. That’s the Andre I’ll remember.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at bymikemooneyham@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham. His latest book — “Final Bell” — is now available at https://evepostbooks.com and on Amazon.com

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