George Raft (September 26, 1895 – November 24, 1980) was an American film actor and dancer who famously portrayed gangsters in crime melodramas of the 1930s and 1940s. Today George Raft is mostly known for his gangster roles in the original Scarface (1932), Each Dawn I Die (1939), and Billy Wilder's 1959 comedy Some Like it Hot. Raft's real-life association with New York gangsters gave his screen image in mob films an added realism.
Early life Edit
Born 'George Ranft' in Hell's Kitchen, New York City, the son of Eva (Glockner) and Conrad Ranft. His father was born in Massachusetts to German immigrant parents, and his mother was a German immigrant. Although Raft's birth year in obituaries has been reported as 1895, the 1900 Census for New York City lists his elder sister, Katie, as his parents' only child, with two children born and only one living. On the 1910 Census, he is listed as being eight years old, and his birth record can be found in the New York City birth index as being 1901. A boyhood friend of gangster Owney Madden (and later a "wheel man" for the mob), Raft admitted narrowly avoided a life of crime. Raft spoke German fluently, having learned the language from his parents.
As a young man Raft earned work as a dancer in New York City nightclubs. Raft became part of the stage act of flamboyant speakeasy hostess Texas Guinan, and his success led him to Broadway where he again worked as a dancer. He later made a semi-autobiographical film called Broadway (1942) about this period in which he plays himself. He also worked in London as a chorus boy in the early 1920s.
Gangster icon Edit
In 1929, Raft relocated to Hollywood and took small roles. His big break came later that same year as the nickel-flipping second lead alongside Paul Muni's raging killer in Scarface (1932), and Raft's convincing portrayal led to speculation that Raft was a gangster. Due to his lifelong friendship with Owney Madden, Raft was a friend or acquaintance of several other crime figures, including Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. Raft and boxer-turned actor/comedian "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom were lifelong friends as well - in fact, Raft was Maxie's mentor from childhood. When Gary Cooper's romantic escapades put him on one gangster's hit list, Raft reportedly interceded and persuaded the mobster to spare Cooper. Orson Welles explained to Peter Bogdanovich in their interview book 'This is Orson Welles' that, as Raft's career accelerated, the actor was particularly an idol and role model for actual gangsters of the period in terms of dress and attitude.
He was one of the three most popular gangster actors of the 1930s, with James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson; Raft ranked far above Humphrey Bogart in fame and box office clout throughout the decade. When the studio refused to hire Texas Guinan, the performer upon whom one of the movie's characters was based, because of her age, Raft advocated for the casting of his friend, Mae West, in a supporting role in his first film as leading man, Night After Night (1932), which launched her movie career.
Career decline Edit
The years 1940 and 1941 proved to be Raft's career peak. He went into a gradual professional decline over the next decade, in part due to allegedly turning down some of the most famous roles in movie history. Raoul Walsh's High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon transformed Humphrey Bogart from supporting player to a major force in Hollywood in 1941. Raft was also reported to have turned down Bogart's role in Casablanca (1942), although according to some Warner Bros. memos, this story is apocryphal.
Following the release of the espionage thriller Background to Danger (1943), a film intended to capitalize on the success of Casablanca, Raft demanded termination of his Warner Brothers contract. Jack Warner was prepared to pay Raft a $10,000 settlement, but the actor either misunderstood or was so eager to be free of the studio that it was he who gave Warner a check in that amount. Raft is widely believed to have been functionally illiterate, which could account for the confusion.
Raft's career as a leading man continued through the 1940s with films of gradually declining quality often produced by Benedict Bogeaus or filmed overseas for tax benefits in Great Britain and Italy, spiraling steadily downward until his name was finally limited as a box office draw.
During the 1950s he was reduced to working as a greeter at the Capri Casino in Mob dominated Havana, Cuba, where he was a part owner. In 1953, Raft also starred as Lt. George Kirby in a syndicated television series police drama titled I'm the Law, which ran for one season and was one of the earliest instances of a movie star of his previous calibre accepting the lead in a TV series. He wound up occasionally accepting supporting roles in movies, such as playing second fiddle to Robert Taylor in Rogue Cop (1954).
Raft satirized his gangster image with a well-received supporting performance in Some Like it Hot (1959), but this did not lead to a comeback, and he spent the remainder of the decade making films in Europe. He played a small role as a casino owner in Ocean's 11 (1960) opposite the Rat Pack. Granted a year's visa to the United Kingdom in 1966, Raft was a greeter in several clubs where he had a cameo in 1967's James Bond spoof Casino Royale. His final film appearances were in Sextette (1978), reunited with Mae West in a cameo, and The Man with Bogart's Face (1980), a nod to 1940s detective movies.
Raft died from leukemia at the age of 85 in Los Angeles, California, on November 24, 1980. Two days earlier, Mae West had died and their bodies were at one point alongside each other in the hallway of the same mortuary at the same time. Raft was interred in Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles.