George Raft was born George Ranft on September 26, 1901. He was known for being a boyhood friend of future criminal superstars such as Owney Madden and Bugsy Siegel and later connections with Al Capone and Vito Genovese. These relationships would continue for many years and would prove to be both a help and hindrance through Raft’s career.
Raft’s ties to the mob were serious enough to merit a file by the FBI, available as a public record on Archive.org George Raft FBI file
He also supposedly worked as a wheelman for the mob and according to the man himself, he barely avoided being pulled into a life of crime.
An excellent and stylish dancer, Raft was able to avoid the seedier aspects of his early life by working as a dancer in New York dance halls and night clubs. At one point working at famous bootlegger Texas Guinan’s establishment.
This soon led to roles on Broadway and notice from notables such as Fred Astaire. Like many New York actors, Raft relocated to Hollywood after the 1929 crash and began acting in a number of small roles, usually as a dancer.
In the 1930s Raft was mainly known for his dancing ability and dapper fashion sense. It is said apocryphally that his look was a major influence on and icon of gangsters in the 1930s. His breakout role would be as second lead in 1932’s Scarface, where he convincingly played a mob heavy named Rinaldo.
This role soon turned into a cottage industry of gangster roles and by the mid-1930s Raft was considered to be in the same rank as mobster icons Robinson and Cagney as one of the most popular actors of the 1930s.
One of the more memorable stories about George Raft and his underworld connections comes from friend James Cagney, who believes that Raft’s connections saved his life.
In 1942 friend James Cagney was elected president of the Screen Actors Guild. One of his major objectives was to wipe out a growing mob influence in the ranks of Hollywood’s trade unions. The mob treated this as a personal insult and began threatening Cagney. Some mobsters were apparently unable to separate Cagney the man from the characters he played. Cagney, a Broadway song and dance man, despised many of his gangster roles and often tried to break out of the narrow style he was typecast in. These mobsters treated his efforts against them as a personal betrayal and they soon escalated to menacing phone calls and direct threats against him.
According to Cagney, there was even a hit being planned that involved a hitman dropping a massive stage light on him. That plot was squashed by the personal intervention of Raft, who called some old friends and canceled the attempt.
Supposedly Raft had done the same thing for Gary Cooper some years earlier, after Cooper’s famously complicated love life landed him in hot water with another group of gangsters.
Successes in the 1930s and early 1940s included excellent the film noir They Drive by Night co-starring Ann Sheridan, Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino.
Gangster film Invisible Stripes with William Holden and Bogart.
Prison Break epic Each Dawn I Die with Cagney and working Joe drama Manpower in 1941 with Marlene Dietrich and Edward G Robinson.
Later in the 1940s Raft’s career began a gradual decline. He turned down several roles that would prove to be huge hits for other actors such as High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, both of which turned Humphrey Bogart into a major star and competitor for roles.
Raft arranged to have his Warner Bros contract canceled after completing Background to Danger in 1943 and moved to RKO and then to his own production company, Star Films in 1946. Raft still worked steadily but in more supporting roles and B pictures. In 1953 he partially bankrolled and starred in television police drama, I’m The Law, one of the first major Hollywood stars to embrace the new medium.
He continued to appear in some memorable A list films, such as Some Like It Hot in 1959, where he played a parody of his gangster roles as “Spats” Colombo and had a bit part as a casino owner in the famous rat pack caper film Ocean’s Eleven in 1960. In semi-retirement by the mid 60’s and living mostly in Europe, he continued to appear in occasional roles in film and television, many of them in Europe. In 1967 he was denied entry into the UK due to his past ties to organized crime.
In poor health by the late 1970s, leukemia claimed George Raft’s life on November 24, 1980 at the age of 79. The dapper gangster had appeared in over 80 films and many TV episodes.