In Hollywood, where there’s never a shortage of big stars, big people are often a different matter. At least people big enough to fill the role of Fezzik, the gentle giant, in director Rob Reiner’s fairy-tale movie, The Princess Bride. When Reiner began casting the part, the name most often mentioned was that of a French-born wrestler named Andre the Giant. Fezzik the Giant played by Andre the Giant? Sounded good. After all, “It’s not like you put out a casting call for giants and 200 show up,” says Reiner, who immediately took off for Paris to make a pitch for the big guy’s help.
What he saw at their first meeting, Reiner recalls now, was “this land mass sitting on a bar stool.” Andre, at 7’4″ and close to 500 lbs., could not only fill a movie screen, he could be one. He had a 24-inch neck, 36-inch thighs, and hands big enough to hold Arizona. He had little in the way of acting experience as well as a possibly troublesome French accent to deal with. Reiner described the part, and Andre, in a quiet, guttural growl, assured him: “Don’t worry, I get it.”
And so he did. Playing the good-natured lunk who helps the movie’s princess, Andre became a quick favorite among his fellow cast members. Calling everyone “Boss” on the set, he was, in fact, “very shy and quiet,” says screenwriter William Goldman, who first saw Andre wrestling at Madison Square Garden about 10 years ago. “But he’s also so strong and so dear.” And not a bad actor, notes Reiner, who says that Andre’s “instincts are pure and natural. He never missed a mark.”
Born in the French Alps 41 years ago, Andre Roussimoff came by Herculean dimensions genetically. His parents and four siblings all stand over 6′, and his Bulgarian grandfather was 7’8″. At 14, Andre himself was 6’3″, weighed 200 lbs. and was quickly growing bored with life on the family farm. Setting off for Paris he took a job as a furniture mover, met a professional wrestler at a bar and eventually switched from toting couches onto a truck to thrashing opponents in the ring.
After five years and a change of name (to Jean Ferre), he returned home for the first time—only to find the door slammed in his face. Mom “had seen me on TV, but since I changed my name, she never realized I was her son,” marvels Andre, who by then had added considerable weight and measure. “My father then came to the door, and I asked him if he had a son named Andre. He said, ‘Yes, do you know him?’ I said I knew him real well.”
These days Andre the Giant’s ring recognition (he changed his professional name again in 1971) earns him an annual income of about $1 million. He travels in a customized van, flies in roomy first class, sleeps (diagonally) on king-size beds and visits the theater only if a special chair is provided. Once a two-case-a-day beer drinker, he shed 100 lbs. last year simply by laying off the brew. Still, size remains a problem. Dogs run the other way, children are often frightened by him, and “I don’t really have too many friends,” he admits. “People want to be my friend because of my size. They want to take advantage of me. I don’t like that.”
Although wrestling keeps Andre traveling 300 days a year, his off-the-road retreat is a 160-acre ranch near Rockingham, N.C., where he raises quarter horses and longhorns. The ranch’s full-time staff is companionship enough for now. “I’m not ready,” says Andre of marriage. “Too many girls want the giant.”
This week the amiable titan travels to Richfield, Ohio, for a match with his old nemesis, Hulk Hogan. It will be “one of the most incredible spectator events of the century,” Jim Troy of the World Wrestling Federation says modestly. Andre simply says of the Thanksgiving evening match, “I’m going to catch a turkey, and right away I’m going to cook him.”
Age, however, and ailments (he had minor back surgery earlier this year) may eventually force Andre out of the ring. Movies would make a nice second career, he concedes, especially “if they write lots of movies needing a giant.” One thing is certain. In Hollywood, a town of big budgets, big egos and big talk, someone like Andre just might bring everyone down to size.