- William Luhr
Raft, George (26 September 1895–24 November 1980), film actor, was born George Ranft in New York City, the son of Conrad Ranft, a worker at odd jobs, and Eva Glockner. He quit elementary school after a few years of sporadic education. Following a fight with his father over his inattentive schooling, he left home and never returned, although he maintained close ties with his mother until her death in 1937. He grew up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, associating with underworld figures such as Owney Madden of the notorious Gophers gang.
From 1910 onward Raft (who changed his name in 1917) tried a number of professions that drew on his physical grace, from boxer to semiprofessional baseball player, before achieving some success as a professional dancer in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in nightclubs, especially Jimmy Durante’s Club Durant and Texas Guinan’s El Fey Club. In 1923 Raft married Grayce Mulrooney. They separated within a year but were never divorced; she died in 1970. There also have been unsubstantiated rumors of an earlier marriage, from which Raft was said to have had a son. For the remainder of his life he had a number of brief romantic relationships but none of any significant duration.
In 1929 Raft appeared in his first film, a result of his work with Texas Guinan. It was Queen of the Night Clubs, starring Guinan. He went on to play a number of small roles in films until his great success as the coin-flipping gangster Guido Rinaldo in Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932). This tough, taciturn, outside-the-law image became the mainstay of his Hollywood career, starting as something to be built on, then as something to be gotten away from, and finally as something to be parodied.
Raft was under contract to Paramount Pictures for most of the 1930s, playing leads in such films as The Bowery (1933), Bolero (1934), The Glass Key (1935), Souls at Sea (1937), and Spawn of the North (1938). In 1939 he signed with Warner Bros. and made films like Each Dawn I Die (1939, with James Cagney), They Drive by Night (1940, with Humphrey Bogart), and Manpower (1941, with Edward G. Robinson). During his studio days he frequently fought with studio heads over creative control of his roles and his image, and he was often suspended because of the bitterness of those battles. In December 1942 he bought out of his Warner Bros. contract and worked freelance from then on. After the 1940s he received fewer and fewer roles, and many of those were cameos; in some he played himself. His most visible role during these years was as the coin-flipping, self-parodying gangster in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959). In 1961 a fictionalized biographical film, The George Raft Story, appeared.
Raft’s tough-guy screen image was reinforced by widely publicized associations with real-life gangsters, the most famous of which was with Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. Raft had an engagement to meet Siegel the night that Siegel was murdered in Los Angeles in 1947. When acting roles became scarce, Raft in 1958 became a host at the Capri hotel in Havana, a job that ended abruptly with Fidel Castro’s takeover. In 1966–1967 he was host at “George Raft’s Colony Club” casino in London but was banned from England in 1967 as persona non grata for his alleged underworld connections.
Raft earned a footnote in film history for some ill-advised attempts to change his image. In the late 1930s he fought to develop a more wholesome image for himself; he tried to escape playing shady or underworld figures, and he did not want to die in his films. During his years of success he turned down a number of roles that catapulted Humphrey Bogart to stardom: Dead End, High Sierra, and The Maltese Falcon. He also turned down the lead in Double Indemnity because of the film’s shady moral tone. Despite such lost opportunities, however, Raft established a distinctive screen image and maintained a substantial career during Hollywood’s golden age. He died in Los Angeles.
There is no cataloged repository of George Raft’s papers. The two major biographies are Lewis Yablonsky, George Raft (1973), and James Robert Parish and Steven Whitney, The George Raft File: The Unauthorized Biography (1974). Obituaries are in the New York Times, 25 Nov. 1980, and Variety, 26 Nov. 1980.
- Durante, Jimmy (1893-1980), comedian
- Guinan, Texas (1884-1933), nightclub personality
- Hawks, Howard (1896-1977), film director
- Cagney, James (1899-1986), actor
- Bogart, Humphrey (1899-1957), film and stage actor
- Robinson, Edward G. (1893-1973), actor
- Wilder, Billy (22 June 1906–27 March 2002), motion-picture director
- Siegel, Bugsy (1906-1947), gangster