Dean O'Gorman on Sir Edmund Hillary's best mate George Lowe
If you ever wondered who the George was in Sir Edmund Hillary's famous, "Well, George, we knocked the bastard off" quote, wonder no more.
The Kiwi mountaineer was talking to fellow climber and adventurer George Lowe who, when he died in 2013, was the last surviving member of the expedition that conquered Mt Everest in 1953.
The Dunedin-born teacher, mountaineer, explorer and photographer was Ed's best mate and a member of the support party that greeted Ed and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay as they descended the summit of Everest after their historic climb in 1953.
"He's a little bit of an unsung hero," says actor Dean O'Gorman, who plays George in Hillary.
"I think Ed is a hero in his own right. He did all that work in Nepal and he got on top of Everest, which is not easy. He was the first man to do it.
"George Lowe, because he was part of the climbing party but wasn't actually the figure that climbed the top of the mountain, was largely ignored by a lot of press but he was an extraordinary man, an incredibly good climber."
It was George who set up the camp – in what is termed the death zone – near the Everest summit where Ed stayed overnight before beginning his triumphant assault on the mountain.
"I think he spent almost two weeks up by the South Col, and even higher, which at the time was something no one had ever done before. No one knew it was even possible to stay at that altitude," says O'Gorman.
He says recreating the scene where Ed and George meet after that epic climb was memorable.
"To re-enact a moment that has been documented and exists feels quite special. It was very different to doing a scene that's been made up. This really happened, so there was a certain amount of reverence that we had towards it," he says.
For O'Gorman, who played actor Kirk Douglas in the movie Trumbo, filming Hillary was a real learning curve. He and Andrew Munro, who plays Ed, travelled to Nepal and discovered just what the mountaineer did for the local people and how highly they still regard him.
"We found the house where Ed stayed and were treated to cooked meals by those who ran the place," O'Gorman says, adding the pair and their companions had only just left the country when a massive earthquake struck.
"I just thought we were experiencing a little earthquake in India which was a little scary but not huge – until we realised that was just the tail end of a really big earthquake in Nepal. It was really sad.
"We'd met a lot of people so the first thing we did was to try to contact everyone we had met to make sure they were OK. A couple of the places we filmed have gone. They're completely flat."
However, there was much more to Ed and George's relationship than Nepal and its mountains.
"George was his best man, he went to India, he went to Japan, they went on the yeti hunt together.
"If Ed was there, it was quite likely George was there too," O'Gorman says.
In fact, many of the photographic records of the Everest climb and the pair's subsequent adventures exist only because of George. Most notably, during the 1953 Everest expedition he directed a documentary film, The Conquest Of Everest, that was nominated for an Oscar.
O'Gorman was particularly impressed by some of the hurdles overcome by George to become the man he was.
"His left arm was broken and had to be reset nine times. He essentially had no strength in it and he went into a life of academia," O'Gorman says.
"He said it was almost because of that injury that he pushed himself on. People sort of said physically he wouldn't be able to do much so he decided that was not the case and he did more than most men in their normal lives do.
"I think it's important for people to see that someone like Hillary, as remarkable as his achievements were, they're not done in isolation.
"A hero can be a hero but they really need the support of other people around them.
"George was a big part of Ed's life."
Hillary, TV One, Sunday.
- TV Guide