Let’s get the Wayne Rooney joke out of the way first: no, the balding, pug-eared, spherically-headed Manchester United golem was not the inspiration for Dreamworks’ most popular creation – as much as we’d love that to be the truth. The animation studio have never publically revealed if ‘Shrek’ was based on a real person, but the common consensus is that there was indeed a real man behind the ogre – and his own story is almost worthy of a Hollywood fairytale.
Maurice Tillet was born in Russia in 1917 and moved to France with his parents as a child. As a young boy, he was nothing out of the ordinary and his cherubic face earned him the nickname “The Angel”. However, in his 20s, it became apparent that Tillet was suffering from acromegaly, a condition caused by complications with the pituitary gland. This caused unwanted bone growth and thickening of the tissue, causing his facial features to jut out, giving him an almost caricatured profile.
Unable to follow his desired career as a lawyer due to his illness, Tillet joined the Navy but later found his true calling when he was introduced to the world of wrestling. Maurice was swiftly dubbed 'The French Angel’ and was a fan-favourite due to his larger-than-life 'monstrous’ persona and signature bear hug. Then working in the United States after World War II forced him to flee France, Tillet embarked on a remarkable 19-month unbeaten span in Boston, Massachusetts, where he began to make a name for himself.
In fact, Tillet was such a popular figure he practically became a franchise unto himself: all around the world, other 'Angels’ popped up, including Paul Olaffsen aka 'The Swedish Angel’ who also suffered from acromegaly. Instantly recognisable, Tillet wrestled until heart problems caused him to quit in 1953. Tragically, he died of heart failure in 1954, but not before a plastercast was made of his unique head, which now resides in Chicago’s International Museum of Surgical Science.
So where does 'Shrek’ come into all of this? By now you’ll have surely noticed the spooky likeness between Maurice Tillet and the Dreamworks ogre – the common sloping brows, broad noses, sticky-out ears and jutting jaws are unmistakable.
The character of Shrek was acquired by Dreamworks in the 90s, based on the picture book by William Steig, but the illustrations were not detailed enough to adapt to the screen faithfully for the 2001 CG movie, and after the death of original voiceover artist Chris Farley, the cartoonish approach to the character was reworked. The animation in the film was some of the most lifelike the studio had ever created, so the artists working on the movie began to use real people as case studies.
Dreamworks have never officially commented on whether or not Tillet was the inspiration for their vision of the ogre – possibly to save them from paying any likeness rights – but there is some interesting hearsay that suggests the wrestler was indeed used as a basis for the character.
An anonymous commentor on a since-deleted blog in 2007 said: “I was working in the PDI/Dreamworks art dept. while Shrek was being developed. On my wall I had photos of wrestling oddballs 'The Swedish Angel’,'Irish Angel’ and the 'French Angel’. They may have well inspired the modelers who sculpted Shrek.”
It seems likely that if Dreamworks’ animators were using the Swedish and Irish 'Angels’ then they would have almost certainly come across Tillet aka the French Angel as part of their research.
Vicky Jenson, the co-director of ‘Shrek’, told us that even she wasn’t sure where the designs came from, but didn’t rule out the connection. She said: “Wow, [I] never saw that before but doesn’t mean the artists who helped design Shrek didn’t. I know we worked hard on his charm!”
Note also: apropos of nothing, the movie version of Shrek seems to be a dab-hand at wrestling. Coincidence, or a secret homage to the man who gave the ogre his crooked smile? Only the animators at Dreamworks know for sure…
Image credits: Press Association/Rex Features