The Life of Maurice Tillet, The Man Who May Have Inspired Shrek

The character Shrek voiced by Mike Myers, is one of the most iconic animated characters of the last century. For years many have believed that a real-life man, Maurice Tillet, inspired the green ogre. Dreamworks has neither confirmed nor denied this, but the similarities are uncanny.

Maurice Tillet
Maurice Tillet

The Early Life of Maurice Tillet

Maurice Tillet, most commonly known by his professional wrestling name The French Angel, was born in 1903 in Russia. 

His parents were both Fench, but for the first years of Tillet’s life, he was raised in the Ural Mountains, where his mother worked as a teacher, and his father was a railroad engineer. 

Unfortunately, his life was filled with hardships from an early age, as his father passed away during Tillet’s early childhood. Tillet’s life was changed by the death of his father and the 1917 Revolution, which forced his mother to relocate back to France in the Reims region to avoid the potential effects of the revolution. 

The relocation brought about an entirely new environment in which Tillet was called to adapt and perform. 

Maurice Tillet and his Wife
Maurice Tillet and his Wife

A Major Growth Spurt

In his early twenties, while still living in France, Tillet noticed a strange swelling in many parts of his body, including his feet, hands, and head. 

The swelling was not something to ignore. As such, he soon decided to visit a doctor who diagnosed him with acromegaly, a condition characterized by a benign tumor on the pituitary gland. 

This condition resulted in both bone overgrowth and thickening of the bones. However, it also left Tillet with a unique appearance that, in many ways, would shape his life later on. 

During this time, Tillet aimed at becoming a lawyer, and as such, he completed a law degree at the University of Toulouse. Still, due to his deep voice and his altered physical appearance, he soon decided that it was unlikely that he could succeed as a lawyer. 

For this reason, he made a career change, and he signed up to serve in the French Navy. He stayed in the French Navy as an engineer for five years.

 The ‘French Angel’ Begins to Wrestle

There is no verified information on exactly how Tillet came to leave the Navy to become a professional wrestler, but rather a few different stories exist regarding this decision. 

In all the stories, there is one common denominator: the meeting of Tillet with Karl Pojello, a professional wrestler, in 1937. 

Pojello, fascinated by Tillet’s unique appearance, convinced him to enter the Professional wrestling business as he thought that Tillet would draw a crowd in. 

The two moved to Paris, where Pojello started training Tillet, and soon the two began joining wrestling matches in France and England and for the next two years found success as professional wrestlers until the start of World War Two.  

For the second time in his life, Tillet was forced to consider his options and relocate because of the turmoil in Europe. This time, the two of them left Europe for the United States in 1939, hoping to find more opportunity there while also fleeing World War Two

Side by side of Maurice Tillet and Shrek
Side by side of Maurice Tillet and Shrek


Life in the United States

While they had left much behind when they migrated to the United States, Tillet had kept his professional wrestling name – The Angel- which was a nickname that his mother had given him at a young age to characterize his pure and kind features. 

The nickname was from a time before his condition, which altered his appearance, but it was one that he kept throughout his professional career. 

When he migrated to the United States, he became better known as the ‘French Angel,’ and he drew crowds in because of his unique appearance and skill. 

In the 1940s in Boston, under promoter Paul Bowser, Tillet became a main eventer and would draw large audiences in. His popularity increased over the years, and he even had nineteen consecutive months in which he was not beaten in a single match. 

His name and presence alone had made a huge impact on the wrestling world, and soon many Angel imitators emerged in the scene. 

These famously included the Swedish Angel, the Russian Angel, the Canadian Angel, the Czech Angel, the Irish Angel, the Lady Angel, and many others. Tillet even competed against some of them. Most famously, he competed against Tor Johnson, who was on those occasions referred to as the Swedish Angel. 

Tillet’s career was not only monumental because of the fantastic crowds that he would draw but also because of his skill. He became the American Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Champion from May 1940 until May 1942, and even after that, he reappeared with a Boston-based title in 1944. His career, though, was short-lived as his condition soon started catching up to him. 

Deteriorating Health and Death

In 1945, his health began to fail, and, in his matches, he could no longer be advertised as unstoppable. Despite that, he remained close with his trainer and manager, Pojello, and continued to wrestle. 

In the 1950s, with his career looking like it would imminently come to an end, he befriended sculptor Louis Linck who made a series of plaster busts to commemorate the wrestling career of his friend. 

These are still available in the exhibition, and one can even be seen in Chicago’s International Museum of Surgical Science. Both his career and his condition had made him a spectacle and allowed him to build his legacy as the French Angel. 

By 1954 his health had significantly declined, and within the span of less than a month, both Pojello and Tillet passed away. It is famously noted that upon hearing of his trainer’s and friend’s death, Tillet passed away from cardiovascular disease. 

The two were buried next to each other at the Lithuanian National Cemetery in Justice, Illinois. The French Angel lives on both through movies like Shrek and his legacy in the wrestling world. He was the world champion and remained undefeated for over a year. 

His unique appearance helped introduce him to the world of wrestling, but it was his undeniable skill that allowed him to be one of the greatest during his time in the sport. 


Alan Behrens

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