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Anton Barichievich, 77; Drew on Strength, Girth for Superhuman Feats

September 15, 2003|Claudia Luther | Times Staff Writer

Anton Barichievich, an incredible hulk of a man whose feats of strength earned him two places in the Guinness Book of Records and legendary status in Montreal, died Sept. 7 after suffering a heart attack at a grocery store in Montreal.

Barichievich, who was better known as the "Great Antonio," was 77.

As he walked about Montreal, Barichievich was nearly impossible to miss -- at his death he was thought to weigh more than 500 pounds and he stood 6 feet, 4 inches tall. His feet were enormous. He could eat four steaks at a sitting. And he had never, apparently, cut his hair, which tumbled around his head but also included a single dreadlock that extended into a body-length braid, bound its entire length with masking tape.

The braid was so stiff that he sometimes knocked a golf ball around with it.

Many in Montreal could tell of the days when Barichievich would approach a city bus, hook a chain around its bumper and pull it for several blocks.

"The bus driver would plead with him to, please, not pull the bus -- that he was late with his schedule," Sid Stevens, director of Sun Youth, a Montreal community organization that is helping to plan Barichievich's funeral, told The Times this week. "And he didn't listen."

Stevens also recalled an occasion when Barichievich, on seeing a woman trapped in a car stuck in a snowbank, "just grabbed the vehicle and moved it out -- no problem at all."

Lois Siegel, an independent filmmaker in Montreal, featured the Great Antonio in "A 20th Century Chocolate Cake," filmed in the early 1980s. In his scene, Barichievich was the "tow truck" when Siegel's station wagon broke down.

"He was huge -- 510 pounds when I met him," Siegel said last week. "I never paid much attention to how tall he was because he was just so big. Massive."

Siegel said that Barichievich, who was proud of his fame, at first wasn't very interested in being in her movie because "there were no stars." She got him to agree to take part when she offered to take his photograph with singer Tom Jones, who was appearing in Montreal at the time. Barichievich added it to his collection of pictures of himself with celebrities.

Siegel, who kept in touch with Barichievich long after her film was finished, said that once she picked him up to take him to an event and had to "literally stuff him in the front of my station wagon."

"When we arrived, the trick was to get him back out," she said. "You had to be very patient."

While trying to make his living doing feats, Barichievich also attempted to get a wrestling career going.

Percival "Al" Friend, who was a young wrestler at the time but never actually faced Barichievich in the ring, wrote on his Web site that he hadn't looked forward to such an encounter with the strongman -- and not just because of the other man's strength. "Antonio also loved garlic," Friend wrote. "He would eat clove after clove of the stuff, as he said it gave him lots of internal strength, and it kept his heart good."

After achieving some fame in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, Barichievich in recent years had been reduced to selling picture postcards of himself and operating out of a local Dunkin' Donuts franchise.

"In the last 10 years, he kept to himself," Stevens said. "He didn't make much sense."

With very little prompting from anyone who approached him, however, Barichievich would pull out a large green garbage bag filled with newspaper clippings that recorded his feats and brushes with the famous, including several appearances on the "Tonight Show" starring Johnny Carson, a small part in the film "Quest for Fire" and an appearance on NBC's "Real People."

Speaking in halting and broken English -- he said he had been born in Yugoslavia -- he would recount how he came to be a strongman.

The son of a lumberjack, he said that at the age of 12 he had pulled trees out of the ground with a cable around his neck. After he moved to Canada in his early 20s, he learned about people who performed feats; he had found his career.

"Yes, I am the Great Antonio," he would say. "Is true. I am famous. One time, I pull four buses full of people with chain. I fight 18 wrestlers at same time. I win, too."

Barichievich first appeared in Guinness in 1952 for pulling a 477-ton train along the tracks for 65 feet (the current record is 1,000 tons). The second appearance was for pulling four fully loaded buses at once in 1960.

Barichievich was sometimes the brunt of jokes about his appearance.

When Alan Thicke interviewed Barichievich in the early 1980s, he asked Barichievich how much he had weighed at birth. Barichievich, apparently somewhat confused, said, "Twelve kilo," which would have made him a more than 26-pound newborn.

"I not remember much," Barichievich added of his birth.

"I bet your mother remembers," Thicke responded. "Like it was yesterday."

George Bowser, half of the musical-satirical duo of Bowser & Blue, based in Montreal, said that he once chatted with Barichievich on Saint-Denis Street in Montreal.

"People stopped and touched him for good luck. He didn't seem to mind."

Barichievich died penniless and without known family.

Considering his size, at first it was thought that he should be cremated. But people who remembered him fondly contributed money so that he could be given a funeral, complete with a specially made casket, so that Montreal residents could say their farewells.

"The whole community is coming forward for him, because he gave so much to them," Stevens said, noting that other people have offered to sing, dance or lay flowers at the ceremony, which will be held in the coming weeks.

"I wouldn't want to be a pallbearer, though," Stevens said, referring to Barichievich's girth. "It's kind of funny, but it's also serious."

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