Do you have a favorite drunkard?
Some amazing man or woman, past or present, who stands colossus-like atop the Big Keg, the ground below littered with crushed empties and the blacked-out carcasses of lesser beings? A verging demigod, whose prowess with a bottle leaves you shaking your head in pop-eyed adoration? Lots of us do.
In addition to their wrist-raising abilities, we deify great drinkers because they indulge their lust for intoxication while simultaneously operating at the peak of their powers in whatever their chosen profession. In other words, great drunks are also great writers, actors, athletes, scientists, statesmen, philosophers, and so on.
I have a favorite drunkard. He was an athlete—a professional wrestler in fact—but he was also a gifted entertainer and a true artist. His parents named him Andre Rene Rousimoff, but we knew him as The Eighth Wonder of the World, Andre the Giant.
For two decades, from the late 1960s through the mid 1980s, Andre the Giant was the highest paid professional wrestler in the business and a household name across the globe. Promoters fought tooth and nail to book Andre, as his presence on a card all but guaranteed a sell-out. Fans cheered his every move, and mobbed him on the street as if he were a great big Beatle.
For proof of his drawing power, look no further than Wrestlemania III in 1987. The main event was Andre vs. Hulk Hogan. The show drew the first million-dollar gate in wrestling history, set a pay-per-view record that lasted a decade, and set the all-time indoor attendance record for any live event ever—78,000+ butts in seats at the Pontiac Silver Dome in Detroit—destroying the previous record set by some rock band called the Rolling Stones. His rematch with Hogan two months later, broadcast live on NBC, attracted 33 million viewers, making it the most watched wrestling match ever.
Known to his friends simply as “Giant” or “Boss,” Andre was born on May 19th, 1946, in Grenoble, France, the child of Russian immigrants. Shortly after his birth, he was diagnosed with a rare glandular disease, acromegaly, which caused his body to over-produce growth hormones. As a result, Andre grew to a height of somewhere between 6’11” and 7’5” and a weight of over 500 pounds (his actual height and weight have been speculated about for decades—the business is notorious for inflating wrestlers’ statistics—but Andre’s illness sometimes made him slouch or bow his shoulders, so he might well have been the advertised 7’5”). He first wrestled as Andre the Butcher, but it was Vincent J. McMahon Sr., owner of New York’s World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF), who christened him “Andre the Giant.”
While it can be argued that a miniscule handful of professional wrestlers matched Andre’s in-ring achievements (Gorgeous George back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, perhaps; Dusty Rhodes in the ‘70s, and Hulk Hogan, without a doubt, in the ‘80s), no other wrestler ever matched his exploits as a drunkard. In fact, no other human has ever matched Andre as a drinker. He is the zenith. He is the Mount Everest of inebriation.
As far as great drunkards go, there is Andre the Giant, and then there is everyone else.
The big man loved two things: wrestling and booze—mostly booze—and his appetites were of mythic proportion.
First, consider the number 7,000. It’s an important number, and a rather scary one considering its context, which is this—it has been estimated that Andre the Giant drank 7,000 calories worth of booze every day. The figure doesn’t include food. Just booze.
I don’t know about you, but it makes my brain turn somersaults. Hell, it makes my brain perform an entire floor routine, complete with colored ribbons.
When Andre arrived in New York to begin his long working relationship with the McMahon family, his reputation as both a serious student of the nightlife and an extravagant spender was already a topic of speculation and wonder among East Coast wrestlers and promoters. Andre might make $15,000-$20,000 for a single appearance at Madison Square Garden, and a substantial amount of that went to settling the bar tabs he piled up as he boozed his way up and down Manhattan until sunrise. Andre’s generosity matched his size. He often invited a gang of fellow wrestlers along for the ride, as he disliked drinking alone, and picked up some truly staggering tabs. Andre was going to have a good time and went out of his way to make sure everyone else did too.
Worried about his headliner, Vince McMahon Sr. assigned a “handler” to the Giant—long-time wrestler, manager, and road agent, Arnold Skaaland, whose only job when Andre was in town was to keep him out of serious trouble and get him to the arena in time to wrestle. Skaaland was an old-school drinker in his own right, but Andre blew his mind. On one occasion he could only watch goggle-eyed as Andre went about demolishing a dozen or so quarts of beer as a “warm-up” for a match.
With Skaaland on the job, Vince Sr. knew Andre was in capable hands, but the promoter still worried about how the Giant would cope with the insane amount of travel required of a wrestling superstar. Andre loathed flying—no commercial airliner could accommodate such a massive man without resorting to the luggage compartment—and his opinion of most cars wasn’t much sunnier, because aspects of his disease caused intense pain in his knees, hips and lower back when he remained too long in a cramped position. When a tight schedule left a plane or car as the only option, Andre eased his discomfort by getting good and hammered.
Vince Sr. pondered the situation and arrived at a novel solution. He wanted to keep the big man happy, so he bought a trailer and had it customized just for Andre. With plenty of room to spread out and relax, Andre could now travel in a semblance of comfort, which allowed him to do some serious boozing. During trips Andre consumed beer at the incredible rate of a case every ninety minutes, with bottles of vodka or top-rate French wine thrown in for variety.
Sadly, the trailer wasn’t available outside the WWWF territory; Vince Sr. wasn’t about to do the competition any favors. Andre didn’t expect other promoters to pony up a trailer just for him, so he commissioned a customized Lincoln Continental. With the front seat now positioned about where the back seat would normally be, Andre had a little leg room. He carried his luggage and wrestling gear in the trunk and towed his necessities in a trailer. Lined with plastic tarps, the rickety trailer was filled with ice and cases of Budweiser tallboys. As he cruised the nation’s highways, Andre kept a case on the seat beside him, stopping only for food, more ice, and another case or two if he ran low.
As famous as Andre was in this country, he was even bigger in Japan. He spent a few months out of every year over there, where he was treated like a living god and pocketed five-figure payoffs for a single night’s work. That being said, Andre didn’t really like Japan. Everything was too small. Hotel beds were like bassinets and it was all but impossible for him to shower or go to the bathroom in their Lilliputian facilities. He was known to rip the door off his hotel bathroom and make use of the toilet by sitting sideways with his legs sticking out into the main room.
Getting from show to show presented its own problems. Japanese promoters preferred to transport the gaijin wrestlers by bus, vehicles which steadfastly refused to house giants. In order to placate their star import, promoters removed several rows of seats from the back of the bus, creating something of a private cabin for Andre, a place spacious enough for him to stretch out or catch a nap. Mostly, though, Andre used the space as a comfortable spot to do his drinking.
A very green rookie wrestler named Hulk Hogan toured Japan several times with Andre and witnessed the Giant’s alcohol consumption first hand. According to Hogan, Andre drank, at a minimum, a case of tall boys during each bus ride. When he finished a can Andre would belch, crush the can in his dinner-platter-sized hand, and bounce the empty off the back of Hogan’s head. Hogan learned to count each thunk, so he could anticipate when Andre was running low. Whenever the bus stopped, it was Hogan’s job to scamper off to the nearest store, buy as many cases of beer as he could carry, and make it back before the bus departed, a sight that never failed to make Andre roar his bassoon-like laugh.
On one tour, Andre’s Japanese sponsors rewarded him with a case of expensive plum wine. Andre settled down in the back of the bus and started drinking. Four hours later, the bus arrived at the next venue, and Andre was polishing off the last bottle of wine.
Sixteen bottles of wine in four hours is a considerable feat, but it gets better. Andre proceeded straight to the ring and wrestled three matches, including a twenty-man battle royal. The 16 bottles of plum wine had no discernible effect on Andre’s in-ring ability. By the end of the evening, Andre had sweated off the wine and found himself growing cranky. He dispatched Hogan for a few cases of beer. Hogan hurried to do as Andre asked, knowing from painful experience that a drunken Giant was a happy Giant, and a happy Giant was less likely to fracture some vital part of an opponent’s anatomy in a fit of grumpiness.
In 1977, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes wrestled Andre at Madison Square Garden. Afterwards, the old friends went out on the town. They adjourned to one of Andre’s favorite watering holes and took stools at the bar (Andre occupied two). Several hours and some 100 beers later (around 75 of them were Andre’s), they decided to head back to their hotel. Andre looked at taxis with the same scorn as most other conveyances and announced that he and Dusty would walk, which was problem because Dusty was having trouble maintaining a vertical position. Andre studied the situation, and a twinkling grin blossomed across his huge face. People who spent any time with the big man quickly learned to watch for that grin. It was a harbinger of danger. It meant that Andre was contemplating something risky, something with potential legal ramifications, but also, most assuredly, something fun.
A moment later, the two huge wrestlers attacked a pair of horse-drawn carriages. Dusty threw a handful of paper money at one driver while Andre hauled the other from his seat with one hand. While one driver cursed and the other scrabbled around on the ground collecting his windfall, Andre and Dusty thundered off in the carriages. They raced through the Manhattan streets, dodging cars and pedestrians for fifteen blocks before ditching the carriages and lathered horses a block from their hotel. By the time the cops arrived, Andre and Dusty were enjoying snifters of brandy in the hotel bar, appearing as innocent as angels. The next day, they main-evented another card at the Garden. Another sell-out. Two pros at the top of their games.
Another time, in the ‘70s, Andre was holding court at a beach-front bar in the Carolinas, boozing it up with fellow wrestlers Blackjack Mulligan, Dick Murdoch, and the inimitable Ric Flair. They’d been drinking with gusto for hours when Flair goaded Mulligan and Murdoch into some slap-boxing with Andre, who had poured over 60 beers down his gullet. One of the two “accidentally” sucker-punched Andre. The Giant became enraged, grabbed both Mulligan (6’5”, 250 lbs.) and Murdoch (6’3”, 240 lbs.) and dragged them into the ocean, one in each hand, where he proceeded to hold them under water. Flair intervened, and Andre released the men, assuring them he was only playing around. Murdoch and Mulligan, who had nearly drowned, weren’t so sure, but neither messed with Andre the Giant again. They also picked up the tab.
On another occasion, Andre was touring the Kansas City territory and went out for drinks after a show with Bobby Heenan and several other wrestlers. When the bartender hollered last call, Andre, slightly annoyed, announced that he didn’t care to leave. Rather than risk an altercation with his hulking customer, the bartender told Andre he could stay only if he was drinking, imagining, surely, that he would soon be rid of the big fella. Andre thanked the man, and proceeded to order 40 vodka tonics. He sat there drinking them, one after another, finishing the last at just after five in the morning.
When ill health forced Andre to largely quit wrestling in the late ‘80s, he accepted the role of Fezzik in Rob Reiner’s movie The Princess Bride. Everyone on the set loved the big man, with the possible exception of Reiner himself. Ever the sociable fellow, he kept fellow cast members Mandy Patinkin and Carey Elwes out night after night, drinking and otherwise goofing around. The actors were incapable of matching Andre’s intake, but certainly gave it a serious try. As a result, they often showed up on set still loaded or suffering from the sort of hangovers that make death seem a pleasant alternative. Reiner tried to get Andre to leave the actors alone, but Andre could only be Andre, and the other cast members continued to pay the price.
The shooting schedule required Andre to be in England for about a month. When his part wrapped, Andre checked out of his suite at the Hyatt in London and flew back to his ranch in North Carolina. His bar bill for the month-long stay?
Just a shade over $40,000.
Now, if everything I’ve described so far isn’t proof enough that Andre the Giant was the greatest drunkard who ever lived, these last two stories should set my claim in granite.
You won’t find it in the Guinness Book of World Records, but Andre the Giant holds the world record for the largest number of beers consumed in a single sitting. These were standard 12-ounce bottles of beer, nothing fancy, but during a six-hour period Andre drank 119 of them. It was one of the few times Andre got drunk enough to pass out, which he did in a hallway at his hotel. His companions, quite drunk themselves, couldn’t move the big man. Fearing trouble with cops, they stole a piano cover from the lounge and draped it over Andre’s inert form. He slept peacefully until morning, unmolested by anyone. Perhaps the hotel people thought he was a piece of furniture.
Think about it: 119 beers in six hours. That’s a beer every three minutes, non stop. That’s beyond epic. It’s beyond the ken of mortal men. It’s god-like.
Giants are not made long for this world, and toward the end of his life injuries and health problems caused by the acromegaly caught up with Andre. It became difficult just to walk, let alone wrestle, so he retired to his North Carolina ranch to drink wine and watch the countryside. He declined myriad requests for a comeback, despite promises of lavish payoffs. He was simply in too much pain to perform at the level he demanded of himself. Then he received a call from Vince McMahon Jr.
McMahon was in the midst of taking his WWF promotion national. He’d scored big-time with his Wrestlemania events on pay-per-view, and as Wrestlemania III approached, Vince Jr. was hot to make it the biggest thing yet. To make that happen, he needed Andre the Giant.
Andre was in France visiting his ailing father when the call came. He thanked Vince Jr. but said there was no way he could get back in a ring, even though he very much wanted to. Not willing to give up, Vince Jr. flew to France to speak with Andre in person. He took Andre to see doctors specializing in back and knee maladies. Radical back surgery was proposed. If successful, the procedure would lessen Andre’s pain and perhaps make it possible for him to get in the ring for Wrestlemania. If Andre was game, Vince Jr. agreed to pay for the entire cost of the surgery.
The time arrived, and the anesthesiologist was frantic. He had never put a person of Andre’s size under the gas before and had no idea how much to use. Various experts were brought in but no solution presented itself until one of the doctors asked Andre if he was a drinker. Andre responded that, yes, he’d been known to tip a glass from time to time. The doctor then wanted to know how much Andre drank and how much it took to get him drunk.
“Well,” rumbled the Giant, “It usually takes two liters of vodka just to make me feel warm inside.”
And thus was a solution found. The gas-passer was able to extrapolate a correct mixture for Andre by analyzing his alcohol intake. It was a medical breakthrough, and the system is still used to this day.
Five months later, Andre the Giant wrestled a “body-slam” match against Hulk Hogan and brought down the house.
Two liters of vodka. Warm and fuzzy. Side by side like that, the two sentences hardly make any sense. For most of us, two liters of vodka means a one-way ticket to Blackout Island aboard the good ship Regurgitania.
After Wrestlemania, Andre retired for good. His beloved father died in 1993 and Andre returned to France to be with his family. He was still there when, on January 26th, 1993, Andre died in his sleep of heart failure at the age of 47.
The key to Andre the Giant is this — even as a youth he knew that his disease would dramatically shorten his life. He knew there was no cure, and lived every day with the understanding that death could shamble around the very next corner. Knowledge of this sort can darken a life.
It did not darken Andre’s.
He chose instead to pack his days with as much insane, drunken fun as they could hold. Instead of languishing in the darkness, he chose to walk in the sun.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again now. Andre the Giant was an inspiration. I would pay a fortune for the opportunity to go back in time 30 years to watch such a master practice his craft, in the ring and at the bar.
Andre the Giant was the very embodiment of what being a drunkard is all about.
(Note: The Author is indebted to the works of Brian Solomon, Ric Flair, Terry Funk, “Superstar” Billy Graham, Dave Meltzer, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, and Hulk Hogan.)