Harvey Keitel loves hamburgers and shakes

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    Harvey Keitel knows what to do in a coffee shop. Definitely better than you, with your coffee and two saccharins. His parents – Jewish immigrants from Romania and Poland – owned a coffee shop in Brooklyn, close to where he grew up, so he could often be found making a hamburger or eating one. Also milkshakes. Egg creams. Some other cake. “I’m full of restaurant food,” Keitel jokes over the phone, calling from a Beverly Hills hotel.

    So it’s no wonder Keitel feels completely at home in Lansky, where he plays Meyer Lansky, a Mount Rushmore-level figure in organized crime history, speaking most of his lines from across a coffee shop booth. Released this summer, the film traverses Lansky’s life to its end – telling his story to a journalist – and the young mobster, developing the National Crime Syndicate and gaining power in American casinos. United. Keitel, in case there was any doubt, imbues the older Lansky with the force of gravity of, for example, Mr. Blanco from Reservoir Dogs, or more recently, the Angelo Bruno of the Irish. We don’t see exactly the rage levels of Corrupt lieutenant in Keitel’s Mets car, but you have a feeling his Lansky could get to that.

    With another infamous crime boss on his resume, we spoke to Keitel about Lansky, about why he thinks we need movies more than ever, about his future with Quentin Tarantino, and, yes, about his elusive food order.

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    ESQUIRE: Since much of Lansky takes place in a cafeteria, what food do you usually order in real life?

    HK: Well, my parents had a coffee shop in Brooklyn when I was a kid, so I grew up in a coffee shop. I ate a lot of egg creams in those days. I washed a lot of dishes and made a lot of burgers on the grill. I ate a lot of charlotte russe cakes. Do you remember those? I am made of restaurant food.

    ESQ: There is nothing better than a smashburger.

    HK: What is a smashburger?

    ESQ: It is when the meat is made into a ball, crushed and cooked like this.

    HK: This is how we made all of our burgers in 1950s Brooklyn.

    ESQ: It sure was a good hamburger.

    HK: It was. My mother made it herself. By the way, do you want a shake with your burger?

    ESQ: Of course. Strawberry, please.

    HK: Oh my favorite. We never called them smoothies in those days. We called them milkshakes. Well, I think this interview is over.

    ESQ: I’m going to cross the street and buy a hamburger.

    HK: Make it two.

    Harvey Keitel’s role as Meyer Lansky is as intimidating as any other character I’ve ever played. (Yes, even Corrupt lieutenant.

    Axelle / Bauer-GriffinGetty Images

    ESQ: There is a phrase that I want to highlight from Lansky. You tell the journalist that the most important measure of ourselves is through the eyes of the people we love. Outside of the movie, do you think that’s the most important measure of a person?

    HK: It is a very nice phrase. There are many measures that I want to judge a person. The way they bend down to help someone who has fallen. How they treat someone who needs something.

    ESQ: It’s also how you act when no one is looking at you.

    HK: What? How do you act when no one is looking at you?

    ESQ: It is when you are not acting for someone.

    HK: Well, we are always performing for someone. Can we include ourselves?

    ESQ: Maybe?

    HK: I don’t know about you, but I confess that I look at myself in the mirror a lot.

    ESQ: Just to cover my bases here: Was Meyer Lansky someone you wanted to portray at some point in his career, or did he get the opportunity and got excited about it?

    HK: Both are true. Meyer was a young Jew who came from Poland as an immigrant to the United States, just as my parents came from Romania and Poland. He went to an impoverished part of New York and was from a family that was not rich. I once made a movie called Border with Jack Nicholson, and Meyer reminds me of those people when we made that movie.

    “The United States is leading the way in robot development. It’s called the Republican Party.”


    The immigrants my parents arrived were in a similar position. Poverty puts you in that situation. Not having a job, not having an education. You can almost say that you have no hope. Meyer had to be as smart as he was to survive. When I think of Meyer, I can only imagine what he would have been like if he had had an education. Meyer fascinated me as a guy who was a genius, because the things he did were great to organize the way he did it. He was a criminal. He was also a father. A parent of a child who was bedridden for life, which brings me to the Nancy Reagan quote – I think it was in the 60s or 70s – “Just say no to drugs.” Try saying no to a person who has no food on the table or to a mother who is being abused. Who are the real criminals today? I’m going to say this phrase, which occurred to me. Yesterday, for some reason, I was thinking about robots.

    ESQ: Really?

    HK: There’s some kind of ad on TV or something like that, and I thought, “Well, America is leading the way in robot development.” It’s called the Republican Party.

    ESQ: You have to work that into something.

    HK: Well, I’m counting on you.

    ESQ: To answer what you have said about Meyer Lansky, is that in addition to that, he also served his country.

    HK: Yes, yes. I was going to say something about that. But first of all, I don’t want to justify the crime by all the jobs it created, but it did create thousands of jobs. And he did support Israel when it was at war for its freedom. There were those aspects of Meyer too. He was by his son’s side until the end of his life. He had a hard life in many ways.

    It’s curious. Eytan Rockaway wrote and directed Lansky. When I got the call – this guy wants me to do the Meyer Lansky life story – his name was Eyton Rockefeller. I said, “Wow.” I saw the tinkling of the cash register. And then when I met him, I realized that he didn’t have Eytan Rockefeller. It was Eytan Rockaway. So my price dropped a lot. But his father is a well-known professor in Israel who interviewed Meyer. In real life. And the interview in the movie is his word-for-word interview that he did. I’m not sure he did it with the director’s father, but it was the first interview he did in Israel.

    ESQ: It’s funny that you say that. Last weekend I was in Sleepy Hollow and saw the Rockefeller Cemetery.

    HK: It is a prestigious place to be buried. I do not care.

    ESQ: It is beautiful.

    HK: When I read the script, I felt Eytan Rockaway’s feelings, about him and his father, about Meyer Lansky and that – I don’t want to sound like it was an advertisement for it – criminality. But criminals are not just criminals. There is a phrase in the film in which he talks about the big corporations in the United States and that Meyer and his people are the underworld. Meyer: “We were not the underworld. We were the world of the dead.” Big corporations love that part, like being the underworld. Today we have a kind of problem, don’t we?

    ESQ: We have it.

    HK: This is not a crime announcement, it is just trying to clear things up.

    ESQ: Quentin Tarantino has said that when he finally makes his 10th movie, it will be his last. Do you see yourself participating in his latest film, if only to close your relationship with him?

    HK: Yes, and yes, and yes. I met him from his first movie, as you know. It was given to me by a woman, a colleague of mine from The Actors Studio. Well, the rest of the story you already know. Quentin arrived on the scene as a shooting star and has done so much to inspire young people. I hug him for that. And again, yes, and yes, and yes.

    screening of

    Would Keitel accept a role in Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie? “Yes, yes and yes,” he says.

    Ron Galella, Ltd.Getty Images

    ESQ: You grew up watching movies in theaters and loving the movies. After some said that the pandemic would wipe out movie theaters, what does it mean to you to see people go back to the movies?

    HK: I just hope it continues. I mean, he missed the movies a lot. The cinema and the theater. Live theater was such an important part of the growth of the world, in the days when we wore loincloths. I hope I’m not that old. Truly, people came together to tell stories. Others went hunting, others cooked and looked after the children. Others came back and told their stories. Thus began the writing of plays and directing.

    I mean that the people who came from Europe, came from poverty and death, and their stories really came from the heart, they came from the soul. It seems to me that today the importance of literature in cinema and theater is being lost. We can do our part: tell those stories that were told years ago and that inspire us as young people to seek them out. I just read a quote that said, “The hardest person to get to know is yourself.”

    ESQ: I believe in that.

    HK: Your date was better.

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Harvey Keitel loves hamburgers and shakes