Column: ‘Andre the Giant’ flick humanizes a story bigger than life

By Neil Best - Newsday

Separating human from myth often is a challenge for a documentarian profiling a prominent athlete. When the athlete in question is a professional wrestler, the degree of difficulty is greater.

When the professional wrestler in question is Andre Rene Roussimoff, it is greater still.

“We wanted to demythologize this guy and paint him as a human being rather than a fictional character,” Jason Hehir said of the film he directed, “Andre The Giant,” which premieres on HBO at 10 p.m. Tuesday.

Easier said than done for a guy whose height, weight, childhood and beer consumption all were the stuff of legend. So Hehir made a rule for himself only to use eyewitness accounts, and not to fret over precise numbers.

“One hundred and fifty-six (bottles) or 106, once you get above a couple of cases of beer, it doesn’t matter,” he said.

What about that story of the writer Samuel Beckett giving Andre rides to school in a small French village because he was too big for the school bus?

Sort of true, but mostly not. Beckett did live nearby.

“There was no bus going into town, and Samuel Beckett would sometimes pick all the kids up,” Hehir said, recalling that as he told the too-big-for-the-bus story to Andre’s brother, Jacques, he wondered what Hehir was talking about.

That sort of insight only could be gleaned from tracking down the people who knew Andre best, some of whom still live in the French countryside where he was reared.

“You have to present him as he was presented in public, especially for younger viewers who don’t know who he was, what a mythological figure he was,” Hehir said. “But the most interesting part of this for me was the investigative part. There’s not a lot of literature out there. I can’t bury myself for three months and read Andre books and learn everything about him, because it doesn’t exist.

“There are some graphic novels, but some of what is out there adopts this mythology about him, which may or may not be true. So we had to actually put boots on the ground and do the legwork to go back to his hometown and interview some of his childhood classmates and family members, (including) his daughter, who haven’t been on camera before.

“The main rule we had in making this was only first-person accounts appear in the film. No hearsay. So if someone said he drank 156 beers, well, were you there?”

There were many people who were there. Among those interviewed are fellow wrestling stars Hulk Hogan, with whom Andre developed a close friendship, and Ric Flair, director Rob Reiner and actors Billy Crystal and Robin Wright, with whom he worked on the 1987 film “The Princess Bride,” and WWE chairman Vince McMahon.

McMahon rarely gives interviews, but he had a special affection for Andre, in part a result of the affection that McMahon’s father, Vince Sr., had for the young giant. That is reflected in an emotional sit-down.

“Andre is really kind of an extended member of his family, and he attributes a lot of that early growth and early success, which is now paying dividends, to Andre and Andre’s stature and prowess back then,” Hehir said. “Once he realized I was very sensitive to certain details of the story and realized the story I wanted to tell and realized the respect with which I held the story and Andre, then I had his blessing.”

Crucially, that blessing extended to the use of WWE’s extensive archives. “They were the most cooperative league or promotion that I’ve ever worked with,” Hehir said. “They sent us over a thousand hours’ worth of programming.”

Andre was 7-4 and 500 pounds — give or take a couple of inches and a hundred pounds — and was active for nearly three decades before dying of heart failure in 1993 at age 46.

The film is the first feature length documentary to come out of Bill Simmons’ deal with HBO, which was announced in July of 2015.

“He reached out to gauge my interest level, which wasn’t that high, to be honest, because I wasn’t a wrestling fanatic as a kid,” Hehir said. “Knowing Bill, he’s such a wrestling fanatic that I thought he might want to go way into the wrestling minutiae, the titleholders and things like that, and I really wasn’t interested in that. But it soon became clear that his sensibilities were identical to mine.”

Their shared goal, Hehir said, was “uncovering as many facts as we could about this guy and humanizing him as much as possible with first-person accounts from those who knew him and loved him most.”


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By Neil Best