Was the 1940s wrestler Maurice Tillet a real-life inspiration for the character Shrek?
Maurice Tillet was born in 1903 in the Ural Mountains of Russia. He grew up to become a professional wrestler known as The French Angel. He was best known for his unusual and menacing appearance, which was a result of acromegaly, a syndrome in which the pituitary gland produces excess growth hormone. Andre the Giant was another wrestler would later suffer from this condition. Tillet’s acromegaly led to a disproportionately large head, hands, and feet. Tillet was also referred to as “the freak ogre of the ring.” He was known to finish off his opponents with his signature “Bear Hug.”
Tillet was popular in the 1940s, nicknamed The French Angel as a child due to his angelic face. Despite what some have described as a primitive appearance, Tillet was well-educated, speaking a rumored 14 languages and holding a college degree. He was also said to be a gifted writer.
Several knockoff “angel” wrestlers appeared after Tillet, including the Swedish Angel, who bore a striking resemblance to Maurice (see below).
Tillet died at the age of 50 due to heart disease, only hours after his manager Karl Pojello died. His obituary suggested that his grief over losing his manager, along with heart disease, played a part in Tillet’s death. Just prior to his death, he had casts made of his head, and subsequent “death masks” were also created. One rumor states that animators at DreamWorks were inspired by these masks in their creation of the Shrek model.
Although acromegaly was first described in 1886, contemporary newspaper articles about Tillet often described him as a sort of primitive human. A July 27, 1943 preview in the Eugene Register-Guard, for example reports, “Tillet, the 280-pound ex-French sailer who was exploited after being discovered in Mongola, is considered the strongest man alive for his size – five-foot-eight. Scientists at Harvard university studied the ‘Angel,’ as he is known in wrestling circles, and declared him the closest thing to neanderthal man…” Indeed, in 1942 a group of Harvard scientists did describe Tillet as a “living replica of the famous Neanderthal man,” (Reading Eagle, April 7, 1942, p.15) but noted that it was merely a similarity in measurements due to acromegaly. It appears that this comparison was used to hype Tillet’s appearances in fight previews, and some writers referred to him as “Neanderthal Man.”
This blog has an impressive collection of Tillet photos and newspaper clippings.
William Stein wrote and illustrated the 1990 book Shrek about an ogre who leaves his home in a swamp and saves a princess. It was adapted by Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg into the 2001 DreamWorks film of the same name.
Stein’s original illustrations of Shrek did not draw comparisons to Tillet, but the final DreamWorks version did. Prior to the character’s final animated appearance, Shrek went through a long evolution in part due to major changes in casting and technology.
Comedic actor Chris Farley was originally slated to voice Shrek, and had recorded a large portion of the dialogue (various sources claim anywhere from 80% to 95%) before his unexpected death in late 1997 at the age of 33. After his death, the script was re-worked to accommodate Myers’ new interpretation of the character. The film was also originally planned to be an old-school stop-motion picture, which was quickly panned by executives.
The audio clip below surfaced in August 2015, giving fans a glimpse at what the Chris Farley version of Shrek may have looked like.
The eventual DreamWorks depiction of Shrek does bear a striking resemblance to Tillet.
Some writers quote an anonymous blogger who supposedly worked at DreamWorks, and stated that photos of “wrestling oddballs” such as The Swedish Angel, Irish Angel, and French Angel hung on the walls for inspiration. As of this writing, no sources related to the film have gone on record to confirm that Tillet inspired the creation of the Shrek model. In 2014, The Huffington Post attempted to obtain a quote from a DreamWorks spokesman on the subject, but the request was not answered.
Some writers have speculated that DreamWorks has not admitted to Tillet’s inspiration for fear that it may be liable to pay his family royalties. There is no evidence to support or refute this, however.
Several other men have been mentioned as possible inspirations for Shrek.
- Rondo Hatton – An actor who also suffered from acromegaly
- Chris Farley. The heavyset comedic actor was originally cast to voice Shrek. It has been asserted that the original models of Shrek were created with Farley in mind (see above).
- Michael Eisner – Although some have suggested that Disney executive Michasel Eisner may have inspired Shrek, it is more likely that he may have inspired the diminutive Lord Farquaad character.
- Swedish Angel. Phil Olafsson also suffered from acromegaly and wrestled in the 1940s. The anonymous quote from an alleged DreamWorks employee states that Olafsson and others were used as inspiration.
The Google Trends chart below shows search popularity on this topic over the years. It appears to have first surged in mid-2010, and has maintained steady interest ever since.
It has been suggested that wrestler Maurice Tillet, also known as The French Angel, was an inspiration for the DreamWorks version of Shrek. There are obvious similarities between Tillet and Shrek, and it’s possible that the wrestler was one of many models from which animators drew inspiration. Without confirmation, Tillet’s influence on Shrek is merely speculation.
- How “Shrek” went from being a train wreck to one for the record books (Jim Hill: May 16, 2004)
- The French Angel Wrestler, Maurice Tillet, Death Masks, and how he inspired Shrek
- Was “The French Angel” Maurice Tillet the Model for Shrek?
Updated January 13, 2016
Originally published April 2015