In the ring, Andre the Giant stood 7-foot-4 and weighed 500 pounds — a behemoth in a black unitard, a sweet-natured colossus who earned millions grappling with Gorilla Monsoon, Hulk Hogan and Big John Studd.
But when bones broke and bruises ached, the French-born wrestler fled to a peaceful spot free of gawkers and autograph seekers: his ranch in Ellerbe, just 90 miles southwest of Raleigh.
For the last decade of his life, Andre Roussimoff tooled around rural Richmond County on a Honda three-wheeler, raising Texas longhorns, entertaining muscle-bound friends and consuming enough beer to fill a swimming pool.
A new HBO documentary on the grappler, "Andre the Giant," gives prominent play to this North Carolina retreat, describing it as the only spot where he could behave as he always wanted: like a regular guy. This and other Tar Heel connections pop in the 85-minute film.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Andre in North Carolina
The documentary, directed by Jason Hehir, makes a tear-jerking case for Andre the Giant struggling with alienation in the world's spotlight. Even at the height of his fame, he felt self-conscious being pointed at in airports, and his constant travel forced him to squeeze into too-small airplane seats and hotel beds, unable to find silverware big enough to fit into his massive hands. He couldn't stop in a restaurant or a bar without getting mobbed.
On his ranch in Ellerbe, he could relax enough to shop in convenience stores. Richmond County, he said, reminded him of the farm where he grew up in France.
"He said he loves it 'because nobody looks twice at me,' " said Billy Crystal, his co-star in "The Princess Bride."
More Tar Heel connections
Among the string of wrestlers interviewed, Ric Flair delivers some of the punchiest lines.
Flair, who lived for years in Charlotte and delivered his trademark "Woooo!" for Carolina Hurricanes fans, weighed in on Andre the Giant's reputation as a magnet for female company.
"He's wearing size 24 shoes," joked Flair. "What else do you want to know?"
The wrestler nicknamed "Nature Boy" also chimed in on Andre's legendary appetite for alcohol, recalling that the two of them once finished 106 beers in a sitting.
The end of Andre
Two decades after the wrestler died in 1993 at age 46, his home in Ellerbe went up for auction, changing hands in 2014. The oak tree growing through the middle of his house had reportedly been removed, as had the custom recliner built for a giant.
But people enjoyed him in Ellerbe. He appeared at Lions Club events, a child holding each of his fingers. He bought an oversized chain saw to use on his land, tipping the hardware store nearly $100.
At his funeral in 1993, Hulk Hogan delivered the eulogy before his friend's 17 pounds of ashes got scattered across the ranch. In the new film, Hogan's handlebar mustache has gone white, but his tears are still fresh.