When Michael Keaton called to talk about playing fast-food visionary Ray Kroc in “The Founder,” he laughed ruefully about the fact that “this interview could so easily have taken place right there in Chicago — where Ray Kroc launched his McDonald’s empire.”
It turns out Keaton was supposed to be in Chicago for President Barack Obama’s farewell speech last week at McCormick Place. “But I was so worried,” he said, “that the weather would prevent me from getting back here to L.A.,” where the actor was slated to conduct interviews about “The Founder.”
Much of the movie is set in Chicago and its suburbs — as well as Southern California, where Kroc discovered the McDonald brothers and their ingenious model for the fast-food restaurant business that Kroc would eventually launch from his first outlet in Des Plaines in 1955.
That said, director John Lee Hancock and his production team managed to shoot the entire film in Georgia and New Mexico. “I’ve spent a lot of time in Chicago and that area,” said Keaton. “I was constantly amazed at how accurate those production folks were in re-creating suburban Chicago — and also the site of the McDonalds’ brothers first restaurant in San Bernardino [California]”
Kroc died in early 1984, so Keaton did not have the opportunity to talk to the fast-food kingpin in the process of preparing to shoot “The Founder.”
“I think it would have been very different if I had talked to him before we shot the film — and then afterward. Frankly, if I had the chance to sit down with him beforehand, I don’t know what I would have asked him, because I actually feel I learned a lot about him by playing him, and playing the way he became such an amazing entrepreneur and capitalist. But afterward, I would have loved to have talked to him about a lot of things,” said the actor.
“I guess the primary thing would have been, ‘What were you thinking, when you screwed the [McDonald] brothers out of that promised lifetime commission on sales?’ — agreed to only by a handshake, when Kroc finally bought them out. I also would have liked to ask him about what seemed his obvious inferiority complex about his name. I got the sense he was embarrassed by the name Kroc. It wasn’t exactly a self-loathing, but there was a bit of something I’ve seen in others of Eastern European extraction, who aspire to an Anglophile mentality — thinking they need that to reach the pinnacle in this country.
“However, probably the most important thing I’d ask him was, ‘Were you aware that what you were doing was branding, creating an amazing brand?'”
Ironically, the McDonald’s menu has never played much of a role in Keaton’s diet.
“When I was a kid, we were seven kids in our family. Just to get all seven in one car at one time was a feat — and when we did, I don’t remember us going to McDonald’s. … While I do eat red meat, I don’t eat a ton. I guess that’s not something someone from the city once famous for its huge stockyards wants to hear!” joked Keaton.
“Occasionally, I do enjoy a good steak, but I don’t eat fast food really,” added the actor, noting he couldn’t remember the last time he was in a McDonald’s.
While Keaton didn’t talk to any current McDonald’s executives or franchise owners — opting to get his background on Kroc mainly from reading about the man and watching a documentary — one Chicagoan involved in the chain told the Sun-Times he found a lot to admire in “The Founder.”
A scene that Keaton called one of his favorites (“though there is absolutely no dialogue”) resonated heavily with Rod Lubeznik, the owner of 24 McDonald’s in Northern Indiana and the Chicago area.
“It’s where Ray Kroc is silently sweeping up a McDonald’s parking lot late at night, after the restaurant is closed. That was pure Ray Kroc,” said Lubeznik. “That was a very accurate portrayal. Ray was the kind of guy who would have done that — even wearing a suit and tie — if he saw it needed to be done.”
Rod’s father, Jack Lubeznik, was one of Kroc’s early franchisees — opening his first restaurant in Michigan City in June 1961. It’s still operated by Rod Lubeznik’s younger brother, Glenn, and his wife Kathy. With Rod’s son Jack and his nephew Sam also both involved in McDonald’s operations, the third generation of the Lubeznik family is very much on board.
Rod Lubeznik declined to comment on the main aspect of “The Founder” — those scenes involving Kroc discovering the McDonald brothers’ operation in California and then taking it nationwide — because “that all occurred before my dad became involved, so I have no knowledge about the accuracy of all that.”
But another aspect of “The Founder” deeply connected with Lubeznik, since it brought back so many memories of his own life spent working and owning McDonald’s locations.
“So many people seen in the film are husbands and wives who take on the responsibility of becoming McDonald’s owners. No question McDonald’s started out as very much as a family business with each operator expected to give their full-time attention to the restaurant. It was very typical for husbands and wives to work shoulder-to-shoulder as depicted in the movie.”