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Nick Offerman’s Character in “The Founder” Is Based on This Real Historical Figure

Richard “Dick” McDonald’s story in the film is true — to a degree

A former McDonald's, now a museum in Illinois. Richard "Dick" McDonald, one of the two McDonald brothers who started the chain (and who is played by Nick Offerman in a new movie) invented both the Golden Arches and the "over 1 million sold" sign. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

In The Founder, Nick Offerman plays Dick McDonald, the more visible of the two McDonald brothers who gave a fast-food empire their name.

Technically, McDonald and his brother Maurice were the founders of their company, but as the film points out, it was Ray Kroc who took their idea and built an insanely huge business from it. And that business, wrote Kenneth N. Gilpin for The New York Times, was far from what the McDonald brothers envisioned.

Dick McDonald, born on this day in 1909, was the face of the McDonald brothers. He’s credited with two of McDonalds’s most iconic symbols: the Golden Arches and the sign that counts how many burgers have been sold, Gilpin wrote.

“I thought the arches would sort of lift the building up,” he told an interviewer in 1985. “Our architect said, ‘Those arches have to go.’ But they worked—it was luck, I guess.” As The Founder tells, Kroc used those symbols in the building of a McDonald's empire. 

How true is the controversy between Dick McDonald and Ray Kroc as shown in this clip from the movie? It depends on who you ask, according to Kerry Close for Time. Although The Founder shows Kroc convincing the McDonalds to franchise, he writes, they had six locations by the time Kroc came along. What is true is that Kroc adopted the title of "McDonalds’ founder," Close writes, and the McDonald brothers weren’t brought back into the official story until the early 1990s, even though it was their name on every single piece of McDonald's merch.

But although their involvement in the official story of McDonald's is less than clear in places, the McDonald brothers came up with fast food.

“In this day and age it’s not far behind the wheel in terms of innovations that have affected all of mankind,” Offerman told Collider’s Steve Wintraub in an interview about the movie. “In the story of McDonalds, it had never occurred to me that somebody had to invent the fast food kitchen.”

But inventing the fast food kitchen is exactly what Dick McDonald and his quieter brother Maurice did, wrote Myrna Oliver of the Los Angeles Times in McDonald’s 1998 obituary. “The two brothers started out with a barbecue, car-hop restaurant in San Bernardino in 1940. But after the war, as proliferating freeways increased customers’ interest in speed of service, they decided to update,” she writes.

In December 1948, the brothers switched to the now-familiar idea of a self-service restaurant with a drive-through where food is handed right out of the window and a limited menu served on disposable plates is offered. “They initially offered 15-cent hamburgers, 19-cent cheeseburgers, 20-cent malts and 10-cent packages of French fries,” she writes.

The McDonalds also pioneered making food ahead of time and the use of infrared heat lamps.  

Dick McDonald was the first cook behind the grill of a McDonald's, wrote The New York Times's Susan Heller Anderson and David W. Dunlap on November 21, 1984. On that day, the 50 billionth McDonalds' hamburger was cooked. “It was eaten by Richard J. McDonald, one of the founders, who cooked burger No. 1 in San Bernadino, Calif., 36 years ago and therefore deserved it,” they wrote.

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