Friday, October 16, 2009

Andre the Friendly Giant

by Ambrose Blake (Tom Emch)

Beloved by small people, particularly children; feared by his enemies, an object of interest to les girls, Andre is a twenty-nine year old Frenchman with a Gallic sense of humor and a handshake you won't forget.

You don't really shake Andre's hand; he shakes yours. You put your hand in his and it gets lost somewhere in a fold of flesh that is positively Brobdignagian.

He's difficult to believe unless you see him, but Andre, who reached seven feet when he was sixteen, is now seven feet five inches and still growing. His Paris doctor says he will grow two more years, until he is thirty-one, and probably top out at seven feet seven inches. He weighs 465 pounds and says he could easily lose eighty or ninety pounds if he quit drinking three cases of beer a day.

"I like biere," says Andre. "I like Eenglish biere; I learned to dreenk it when I would in Loundoun. And I like Oustralian biere, but I never dreenk biere in France; I dreenk the wine."

They call him Andre the Giant and he had just finished winning a tag team wrestling match at the Richmond Memorial Auditorium: Andre and U.S. champ Pat Patterson vs. Mr. Saito, the Masked Invader and Bobby Jaggers. It was no contest.

Andre merely kicked Mr. Saito in the derriere with his size 22 EEEE leather boot and picked up the Masked Invader and threw him out of the ring. The match went on for a little over twenty-five minutes while Pat Patterson took a drubbing, but the moment he tagged his teammate, Andre, the outcome was not in doubt. The highlight - and a real crowd-pleaser - was when in mock rage Andre picked up the referee and threw him out of the ring, but gently because the referee has a wife and kids and had to work again the following night.

The wrestling match was predictable, except for the ringside spectators, who didn't know from one moment to the next who was going to land in their laps, and for that reason it was somewhat boring. But talking to Andre later, after he had showered and dressed and was drinking beer, was interesting.

Andre said he was born in Grenoble, an industrial city in southeastern France, and his parents were pretty much normal size. But his grandfather was seven feet eight inches, and he knew he was going to be a giant by the time he was twelve.

At fourteen, Andre dropped out of school and wen to Paris to seek his fortune. First job? A mover; pianos, and two tone safes were his specialty. One day a sports promoter saw him lift a safe and asked Andre to come to the gymnasium and work out. He was sixteen and in a few months he was wrestling professionally.

"I used to do road work and lift weights," Andre says. "When I started wrestling, I weighed under three hundred pounds. That was before I went to Eengland and started dreenking biere."

In addition to England and Australia, Andre has appeared in the ring in almost every non-Communist country in the world. He is also a movie actor; he appeared as Bigfoot in a two-part segment of television's Six Million Dollar Man.

When he travels, it is by air and first class. "I don't fit in the seats in tourist class," he explains. He's somewhat of a feeding problem, too. The giant usually eats about six meals a day and says he prefers six small meals to three big ones.

A small meal is a dozen scrambled eggs for breakfast plus fruit and French bread and jam. Lunch (or brunch) is often fillet of sole, which is his favorite fish. "I eat everything; I like everything," he says, grinning.

When Andre smiles, everybody smiles. One wouldn't want to offend him. People also laugh at his jokes, even through they are in a combination of English, French and Quebecois and you only understand about half the lines.

Andre is asked about wine and he says he likes champagne. "One time on a plane from Montreal to Paris, I dreenk eighteen bottles of champagne; I like champagne," he added redundantly.

Drinking and eating are very big with Andre and he says he'd like to open a restaurant when his wrestling career is over. "I enjoy meeting people and people like me."

It's true, Andre is likable. Pat Patterson calls him the "gentle giant" and says Andre wouldn't harm a flea.

Patterson recalls: "I only saw him mad once. It was in Montreal and we were in a bar together. There were some big Canadians who wanted to take him on; they provoked him."

What happened?

"It took Andre about sixty seconds to flatten four men," said Patterson, with a gesture that indicated the smashing of heads and bone structure." But he avoids trouble; just smiles and offers to buy a drink."

Andre can afford it. His promoters in the Bay Area, Davy Rosenberg and Pete Marino, estimate that Andre makes close to $250,000 a year wrestling four or five nights a week. He picked up about $8000 for his work at the Richmond Auditorium, and it would have been more but the crowd was small. Out of his annual take come travel expenses and lodging and food, a big item.

"Some brewery ought to buy a piece of him to promote their beer," says Rosenberg. "He drinks enough of it."

While in San Francisco, on sort of a promotional tour of the city, Andre visited some North Beach night spots and the financial district, where he ws impressed by the huge polished boulder on the Bank of America plaza.

"Theeze ees my pet rock," he announced to the press.

The day after his encounter with Mr. Saito (who wrestled in the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 1964), the Masked Invader and Bobby Jaggers in the Richmond Auditorium, Andre flew east. To Detroit, to Montreal, where he has a home, and to Europe.

And as you read this he is probably wrestling somewhere in the world, or drinking beer, and the audience is cheering him on.

He said, when I left him, that he doesn't consider himself unusual. He said he is normal and all the rest of the people in the world are freaks.

This is very funny if you hear it in French. Andre has a Gallic sense of humor. Everybody laughed.

San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle 1976