Tom Sorensen

Ric Flair among many in N.C. who could call Andre the Giant their biggest friend

Professional wrestler Hulk Hogan recalls that Andre the Giant “lived the way he wanted to live, and he had a good time. I once saw him drink 150 beers.”
Professional wrestler Hulk Hogan recalls that Andre the Giant “lived the way he wanted to live, and he had a good time. I once saw him drink 150 beers.” Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

HBO biography “Andre the Giant” made its debut Tuesday night. If you missed it, you’ll get an opportunity to see it again. A former wrestler and WWE star, Andre the Giant was listed at 7-foot-4 and 540 pounds.

He probably was neither —not as tall as 7-4 and not as heavy as 540 pounds. But at some point, a few extra inches and pounds don’t matter.

Although Andre had shown signs of great growth in his teens, he was in his 20s when he was diagnosed with acromegaly, a pituitary disorder that causes growth. If you saw him on the street or in a restaurant, you looked at him, and I don’t care how courteous you are. When he stepped into a wrestling ring, the oversized wrestler against whom he competed was oversized no more.

“Everywhere he went, people looked,” former wrestler Ric Flair says Tuesday by telephone. “Every sport had stars, Michael (Jordan), LeBron (James), but who do you know who was more recognizable than Andre? Nobody didn’t know who he was.”

Before I met Andre, the biggest man I had ever seen sat down with or seen was Mel Turpin, a Kentucky Wildcats’ basketball player nicknamed Dinner Bell Mel. Turpin was 6-11 and 240 pounds.

Andre walked into a room at what is now Grady Cole Center for our interview. He paused in the doorway. The doorway disappeared.

He was funny and bubbly that day, and I walked away thinking, “This is a guy that likes his life.”

Andre had opportunities to be treated for the acromegaly, but never agreed to do it.

He grew up in France, and loved his country. But he settled in Ellerbe, about an hour and 40 minutes east of Charlotte. He owned a 200-acre ranch there. The ranch, says Flair, was a refuge. Andre raised horses and cattle, and nobody stared.

Like Flair, Andre was a star. He and Flair wrestled in battle royales, together and against each other as a tag team, and twice competed for the title.

AndreTheGiantObserverFile
Andre the Giant grew up in France, and loved his country. But he settled in North Carolina, on a 200-acre ranch in Ellerbe, about an hour and 40 minutes east of Charlotte. Davie Hinshaw 1970 Charlotte Observer file photo

Asked about going against Andre, Flair laughs. “Andre was a tremendous athlete,” he says. “He was a soccer player when he was younger.”

You imagine Andre as a young, large, athletic and fearsome soccer player? Every time he played, opponents would have set a Guinness world record for flopping.

Andre also played the giant Fezzik in the 1987 movie “The Princess Bride,” and watched it repeatedly.

Andre died in his native France in 1993 at the age of 46. He had gone to see his father, who was ill, and stayed after his father’s death.

“We started wrestling at the same time,” says Flair, 69. “As he got older, his size and his back gave him trouble. But he lived the way he wanted to live, and he had a good time. I once saw him drink 150 beers.”

How many?

“150,” Flair says.

At one time?

“Yeah, at one time.”

Because Andre was gentle, because he was courteous, because he liked to have a good time and he liked the people around him to have a good time, he collected friends and fans.

He was so popular that admittance to his 1993 memorial service in Ellerbe was by invitation only. Organizers were kind enough to invite me.

AndreGiantAP
Andre the Giant was so popular that admittance to his 1993 memorial service in Ellerbe was by invitation only. Richard Drew 1988 AP File Photo

Frenchy Bernard, who ran the ranch for Andre, scattered Andre’s ashes. He put them in his saddlebag, climbed on his horse and spread them across some of the 200 acres. I remember thinking that there were so many ashes I had no chance to make deadline.

Onto the ranch near Ellerbe came wrestling stars from across the country, many with tan faces and very blond hair. Rather than mourn, his friends celebrated Andre’s life. There were lots of stories, lots of laughter and lots of champagne.

The champagne, appropriately, was French.

Ric Flair, if you were going to describe Andre in a phrase, what would that phrase be?

“Larger than life,” Flair says.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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