Raft said he never regarded himself as an actor. "I wanted to be me," he said.
George Ranft was born in Hell's Kitchen, New York City, to a Catholic family of German descent, the son of Eva (née Glockner), a German immigrant, and Conrad Ranft, who was born in Massachusetts to German immigrant parents. His parents were married on November 17, 1895, in Manhattan. George's elder sister, Eva, known as "Katie", was born on April 18, 1896.
Some obituaries cited Raft's year of birth as 1895, which the actor reportedly stated was correct on television in 1980; he is recorded in the New York City Birth Index as having been born on September 26, 1901, in Manhattan as "George Rauft" (although "Rauft" is likely a mistranscription of "Ranft"); 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. A boyhood friend of gangsters Owney Madden and Bugsy Siegel (and later a "wheel man" for the mob), Raft acknowledged having narrowly avoided a life of crime.
Raft grew up on 41st Street and worked as an errand boy and a fishwrapper after school. His parents sent him to live at his grandparents house on 164th Street. He left school at age 12 and left home aged 13. He worked as an apprentice electrician for a year, then boxed professionally for two years. As "Dutch Rauft", he had 14 bouts, 9 victories and 3 defeats and two draws. In 1911 he was a minor league baseball player for Springfield of the Eastern League as a utility outfielder with pitching aspirations. However his batting was poor and he got dropped. "I was just trying to find something that I liked that would make me a living," said Raft later. "I saw guys fighting, so I fought. I saw guys playing ball, so I played ball. Then I saw guys dancing... and getting paid for it!"
Raft had been taught how to dance by his mother and had danced at outdoor amusement parks and carnivals with his parents. Following his baseball career he began working as a taxi dancer in the poorer sections of New York. At first he struggled financially but then he won a Charleston competition and was launched professionally.
He started doing exhibition dances in the afternoon at Healy's, Murray's, Rectors and Churchills in New York. He then started working in New York City nightclubs, often in the same venues as Rudolph Valentino before Valentino became a movie actor.
Raft toured with his dancing and helped popularise the tango in Paris, Vienna, Rome, London and New York. He had a great success as a dancer in London in 1926, and the Duke of Windsor was "an ardent fan and supporter." Fred Astaire, in his autobiography Steps in Time (1959), says Raft was a lightning-fast dancer and did "the fastest Charleston I ever saw."
Raft became part of the stage act of flamboyant speakeasy hostess Texas Guinan at the 300 Club (also producing some of her shows). His success led him to Broadway, where he again worked as a dancer. His stage performances included The City Chap (1925) (with music by Jerome Kern), Gay Paree, Madhattan, Palm Beach Nights (aka No Foolin')and Padlocks of 1927 (1927). He later made a semiautobiographical film called Broadway (1942) about this period in which he plays himself.
He also worked on the Paramount Publix circuit, performing in stage shows that were presented before movies.
Owney Madden told Raft he should be in movies and Raft decided to try it after being threatened by the husband of a woman he had been seeing. In 1927, Raft relocated to Hollywood. It took him a while to establish himself, and he would dance in clubs to pay the bills.
In October 1928 he appeared on a stage show presented by famed night club hostess Texas Guinan. The Los Angeles Times said Raft "scores a tremendous individual hit."
His screen debut was in Queen of the Night Clubs (1929), starring Guinan who insisted Raft have a small role. The film is lost now, but it was reported that Raft's scenes were cut. However he appeared in stage shows supporting the film. One reviewer called him "a clever dancer".
He followed it with small roles in Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929) and Side Street (1929), dancing with some chorus girls. He was spotted by director Rowland Brown who used him to good effect in a small role in Quick Millions (1931). This was followed by Goldie (1931), Hush Money (1931) and the Eddie Cantor musical Palmy Days (1931).
In Taxi! (1932), starring James Cagney and Loretta Young, Raft has a colorful unbilled dancing role as Cagney's competitor in a dance contest, who wins only to be knocked down by Cagney. He had a decent part in Dancers in the Dark (1932) with Miriam Hopkins.
Raft's big break came when cast as the second lead alongside Paul Muni in Scarface (1932), directed by Howard Hawks. He played Muni's second-in-command who falls in love with his sister and is murdered by Muni. Raft's performance was notable for his character constantly flipping a coin during scenes, which became an iconic moment in gangster films. (Many people later claimed credit for this idea, including Raft and Hawks.) The film was shot in September 1931 but not released until the following year. It was a notable hit and Raft garnered a lot of attention.
"That was the big one," said Raft. "People remembered me. I was getting real fan mail - by the bushel basket - and even a dumb kid from 10th Avenue could figure out how to translate that into money."
After filming Scarface, Raft made Night World (1932), at Universal, supporting Lew Ayres, playing a gambler; and Love Is a Racket (1932), directed by William Wellman (though all Raft's scenes were deleted).
Raft signed a contract with Paramount in February 1932. They put him in a supporting role for Madame Racketeer (1932) and he was announced for Ladies of the Big House with Sylvia Sidney and Gene Raymond.
Then Scarface was released and public response was so strong Raft was given the lead in a film based on a story by Louis Bromfeld, originally called Number 55 the changed to Night After Night (1932).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.
He was one of several Paramount stars who appeared in the comedy If I Had a Million (1932), playing a forger hiding from police, suddenly given a million dollars with no place to cash the check). He starred in Under-Cover Man (1932) and was announced for Bodyguard which was never made.
He was in Pick-Up (1933) opposite Sylvia Sidney.
Raft refused to appear in The Story of Temple Drake (1933) with Miriam Hopkins, as he did not want to play a sadist. He was replaced by Jack La Rue, who had been the original casting for Raft's role in Scarface. Raft was put on suspension in February.
"It's not that I mind being the guy on the wrong side of the law," he said. "But I won't take a role that's pure heel.The character has to have some ray of warmth, some redeeming quality - or it just isn't real."
The film performed poorly at the box office and was seen to have hurt La Rue's career. Raft was taken off suspension in April 1933. He returned to Hollywood to make Midnight Club (1933), set in London.
Raft was borrowed by Twentieth Century Pictures, a new production company established by Darryl F. Zanuck (former head of production at Warners). He was to appear in their first film, Raoul Walsh's energetic period piece The Bowery as Steve Brodie, supposedly the first man to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge and survive, with Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper, Fay Wray, and Pert Kelton. Raft memorably dances into the picture in his opening scene wearing a derby. The film was highly popular.
Back at Paramount Raft supported Frederic March and Miriam Hopkins in All of Me (1934) which was not popular. Zanuck wanted him for Blood Money but he was too busy at Paramount.
He was meant to be in Its a Pleasure to Lose based on the life of Nick the Greek but instead made Bolero (1934), where Raft played a dancer opposite Carole Lombard. Raft refused to do the film until it was rewritten; the studio suspended him for a time but he eventually did it and the resulting movie was a big hit. The New York Times said "Raft is a vivid and pictorially interesting type, rather than an actor in the technical sense, and consequently he proves unequal to the full implications of the fame-hungry dancer. The exterior attractiveness which Mr. Raft brings to the rôle gives "Bolero" considerable color, nevertheless."
In March 1934 Raft was suspended a second time for refusing the male lead in Mae West's It Ain't No Sin (later Belle of the Nineties.) because his part was subordinate to West's. In May Raft signed a new contract with Paramount, to reflect his star status.
Raft went into The Trumpet Blows (1934), playing a matador (an attempt to invoke Valentino's Blood and Sand); for a time he was promoted as a "second Valentino". Raft walked out on the film unhappy with his role, but later came back after some rewrites were done. The film was a box office disappointment.
Raft followed it with Limehouse Blues (1934; with Anna May Wong). In February 1934 Raft admitted to having been involved in three fights during his career as a dancer and actor, including one where he hit the producer of Bolero. August 1934 Raft was involved in a brawl at the Hollywood Brown Derby.
At the end of 1934 Raft was listed in a survey of theatre managers as among Paramount's secondary tier of stars "if properly cast". Mae West and Bing Crosby were on top; others on Raft's level included The Marx Brothers, Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, and W.C. Fields.
He made Rumba (1935), a reunion with Lombard; and Stolen Harmony (1935). He was meant to make Gambler's Maxim from a story by James Edward Grant but the film was not made.
He starrred in a brutal and fast-paced adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key (1935; remade in 1942 with Alan Ladd. He tried a comedy Every Night at Eight (1935) and was borrowed by Columbia Pictures to appear in She Couldn't Take It (1935), a comedy in the vein of It Happened One Night (1934). Raft then was borrowed by 20th Century Fox for It Had to Happen (1936). Back at Paramount he was in Yours for the Asking (1936).
Raft was meant to team with Lombard for a third time in The Princess Comes Across (1936) but refused to make it as he was unhappy with the choice of cameraman. He was replaced by Fred MacMurray and was suspended again in February 1936.
Raft was meant to make You and Me, the directorial debut of Norman Krasna but refused to work for a first time director. Raft was put on suspension in November 1936 and $24,000 of his salary was withheld.
Raft was offered a part opposite the studio's biggest male star, Gary Cooper, in Souls at Sea (1937) directed by Henry Hathaway. Raft originally turned it down as his character was a coward and he left Paramount and his $4000 a week contract in November 1936. Sam Goldwyn wanted Raft for the film version of Dead End and Universal, David O. Selznick and 20th Century Fox were keen on using Raft; Lloyd Nolan was announced as Raft's replacement in Souls at Sea. However Raft agreed to return to Paramount and the film when his part was rewritten to be more sympathetic.
Souls at Sea was a big hit. In 1937 Raft was the third highest paid star in Hollywood, behind Cooper and Warner Baxter, earning $202,666. In May 1937 Raft reportedly tested for the role of Rhett Butler in the film of Gone with the Wind.
Paramount announced him for Millions for Defence with Ray Milland and Frances Farmer about the Barbary War, but the film was not made. Instead he made a drama with Sylvia Sidney, You and Me (1938) directed by Fritz Lang, then was reunited with Hathaway for another adventure story, Spawn of the North (1938), with Henry Fonda.
He was announced for The World Applauds and Two-Time Loser.
Paramount wanted Raft to appear in St Louis Blues but he refused and was replaced by Lloyd Nolan. "Raft is Hollywood's authority on walk outs," wrote one columnist. He was suspended, then allowed to do a comedy, The Lady's from Kentucky (1939). In January 1939 he refused to make The Magnificent Fraud and was again replaced by Lloyd Nolan. Raft's contract was meant to go until February of that year but they decided to end it early.
Raft received an offer from Warner Bros to appear opposite James Cagney in a prison film, Each Dawn I Die (1939). He followed this with I Stole a Million (1939) for Universal. Each Dawn I Die was a big success and Warners offered Raft a long term contract in July 1939, at three films a year.
Raft was meant to remake The Patent Leather Kid and appear in the story of John Dillinger film with Cagney but both projects were called off. Instead he was assigned to Invisible Stripes (1939) with William Holden as his brother and Humphrey Bogart in support. Raft was borrowed by Walter Wanger to play a gangster in The House Across the Bay (1940), which was a flop. He was cast in City for Conquest (1940) but turned down the role and was replaced by Anthony Quinn.
He was meant to be in Star of Africa but the film was not made. He was also meant to make The Dealer's Name was George from a story by Ketti Frings but turned down the movie; it was revived in 1945 as a possible Humphrey Bogart movie but was ultimately never made.
They Drive by Night (1940) directed by Walsh, was a trucking melodrama, with Raft and Bogart playing brothers. He turned down the lead in South of Suez (1940) and was replaced by George Brent. He was placed on suspension but was meant to go back off it to appear in The Sea Wolf (1941) but he did not like the role and was suspended again. John Garfield took his place. MGM were going to borrow him to co-star with Norma Shearer in The World We Make but the film was not made.
Raft also turned down the leads in High Sierra (which had been turned down by Paul Muni) and The Maltese Falcon (1941). Both roles were played by Humphrey Bogart. Instead Raft made Manpower (1941), with Edward G. Robinson and Marlene Dietrich). During filming, Raft and Robinson came to blows. Raft then turned down the lead in All Through the Night (1942), refusing to turn up on the first day of filming because he did not want to play a "heel". Bogart took that role as well. It meant Raft was unable to take up Fox's offer to appear in To the Shores of Tripoli.
Raft wanted to appear in a film version of the musical Broadway (1942), made at Universal. Jack Warner refused to loan him out so Raft spent eight months on suspension without pay. They could only do this while there were making movies that Raft turned down; eventually Warners ran out of movies and they would have to go back to paying him. They let him make Broadway.
Raft said he had to pay $27,500 out of his own pocket and negotiate so that Warners could borrow Robert Cummings from Universal for another film. The resulting film was a mild box office success.
Raft was reported to have turned down Bogart's role in Casablanca (1942), although according to some Warner Bros. memos, this story is apocryphal. Raft was discussed as a possibility for the lead at one stage, but never offered it.
Raft was one of many Warners names who appeared in Stage Door Canteen (1943). He was reportedly working on a play based on his life with W.R. Burnett called Hell's Kitchen. He finally returned to filming at Warners with the espionage thriller Background to Danger (1943), a film intended to capitalize on the success of Casablanca (Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre were in support - Raft and Lorre got into a fistfight on set.). In November 1942, Raft bought himself out of his Warners contract in order to do Hell's Kitchen on stage. He ended up never doing the play on stage.
Raft's career as a freelance actor initially began well. He toured the US, England and Africa, performing for the troops. He was offered the lead in Double Indemnity (1944) by Billy Wilder but turned it down. "We knew then that we'd have a good picture," said Wilder later. (Raft later admitted "I wasn't very intelligent then.")
Raft's first film after leaving Warners was Follow the Boys (1944), a musical at Universal, which featured a number of Universal's stars in a guest spots and Raft in the lead. It achieved a healthy gross. 20th Century Fox hired him to a contract so he could appear in a musical, Nob Hill (1945), replacing Fred MacMurray; directed by Hathaway, it was a huge hit.
Following this he made a thriller at RKO for director Edwin Marin, Johnny Angel (1945), which turned into an unexpected hit as well, making a profit of over a million dollars. Also popular was Whistle Stop (1946), a melodrama for United Artists, which gave an early good role to Ava Gardner.
Mr. Ace (1946), which reunited him with Sylvia Sidney and director Marin for producer Benedict Bogeaus, was a flop. However it did lead to a radio series starring Raft, The Cases of Mr. Ace (1947).
In 1946, Raft earned a reported $108,000 for the year. Raft announced he had created his own production company, Star Films, with Sam Bischoff as president, and would make three films in two years for $3.5 million.
He and Marin returned to RKO to make the film noir Nocturne (1946), produced by Joan Harrison which was popular.
Raft's next three films were all directed by Marin: Christmas Eve (1947), at United Artists for Bogeus, a box office disappointment; Intrigue (1947) at United Artists for Star Films; Race Street (1948) at RKO.
In June 1947 Raft received some bad publicity when his friend Bugsy Siegel was murdered.
Star Film's second movie was a story of the French Foreign Legion, Outpost in Morocco (1949), partly shot on location in Africa. The film was a box office disappointment; Raft had announced a series of projects to be made by Star Films, including The Mississippi Gambler but he ended up not making them.
He followed this with a series of thrillers: Johnny Allegro (1949), directed by Ted Tetzlaff for Columbia; Red Light (1949), for Roy del Ruth at United Artists; and A Dangerous Profession (1949), for Tetzlaff at RKO. None of these performed particularly strongly at the box office, and Raft's standing as a box office attraction had been damaged. The Johnny Allegro shoot went on for so long that Raft missed out on the chance to star in The Big Steal (1949); he was replaced by Robert Mitchum.
Raft went to England to make I'll Get You for This, shot in 1950 but not released for another year. In the summer of 1951, Raft had the title role in the radio adventure series Rocky Jordan. He played "the owner of a cabaret in Cairo whose life is steeped in intrigue." It only lasted a few months.
Raft appeared in two low budget thrillers, Escape Route (1952), shot in England with Sally Gray, and Loan Shark (1952). Both were released through Lippert Pictures. He starred in a syndicated TV series I'm the Law (1953) which ran one season.
The Man from Cairo (1953), also for Lippert and shot in Europe and Africa, was the last film in which Raft had top billing. He resumed his dancing career, doing an exhibit in Las Vegas. "As far as films are concerned, I'm dead," he said. "Nobody has been breaking their necks trying-to hire me."
He tried to persuade Darryl Zanuck to remake The Honor System. "I want to play heavies again," he said. "I think I made a mistake going straight."
Raft had an excellent role as mob boss supporting Robert Taylor in Rogue Cop (1954), a hit at MGM. Also popular was Black Widow (1954), a noir with Ginger Rogers, but A Bullet for Joey (1955), which reunited Raft with Robinson, was a flop.
Raft was one of many guest stars in Around the World in 80 Days (1956) after which, said Raft, "the telephone just seemed to stop ringing". He decided to look for other work.
In 1955 Raft was offered a 2% share in the Flamingo Hotel if he acted as entertainment director. Raft agreed but was rejected for a gaming licence because of his history of working at clubs owned by crime figures such as Owney Madden. He appealed and managed to get the decision overturned and went to work at the hotel negotiating their showbusiness deals. He later worked as a greeter at the Capri Casino in Havana, Cuba, where he was a part owner. This ended when Fidel Castro took over the country and stamped out the casinos. (Raft was in Havana the night the revolutionaries arrived.)
Back in Hollywood, Raft was offered a role in Some Like It Hot (1959) as a gangster. Due to Marilyn Monroe's tardiness on set, it turned into 16 weeks of work. He made a film in England, Jet Over the Atlantic.
The success of Some Like It Hot did not lead to a comeback, but Raft managed to get roles as a casino owner in Ocean's 11 (1960), and had a cameo as himself in The Ladies Man (1961). In Britain he was in a pilot that never went to series, Two Guys Abroad (1962), and back in Hollywood had small roles in For Those Who Think Young (1964) and The Patsy (1964).
In 1965 Raft was convicted of income tax evasion. He pled guilty to one count and was fined $2,500. The following year he testified in front of a New York grand jury about Mafia financial transactions.
Raft received an offer from Andy Neatrour to work as a host and part owner of a gambling club in London, the Colony Club. Raft went there in 1966. While in there he had parts in several movies, including a cameo in 1967's James Bond spoof Casino Royale, a French film with Jean Gabin The Upper Hand (1966) and Five Golden Dragons (1967). The club was a success. However after he went to the US for a short holiday he was banned from re-entering London in 1967 as an "undesirable".
His later films included Skidoo (1968), and Madigan's Millions (1968).
In the early 1970s, Raft appeared in a now-famous Alka Seltzer television commercial playing the role of a prison inmate. He worked as a goodwill ambassador for the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. He had to sell his house and move into an apartment in Century City.
His final film appearances were in Hammersmith Is Out (1972), Sextette (1978), reunited with long-ago co-star Mae West, and The Man with Bogart's Face (1980), a nod to 1940s detective movies.
Raft was a stockholder in the Parvin-Dohrmann Corporation, a hotel and casino company which owned the Flamingo Las Vegas.
Ray Danton played Raft in The George Raft Story (1961), which co-starred Jayne Mansfield. Raft himself, however, excoriated the film upon its release due to inaccuracies. In the 1991 biographical movie Bugsy, the character of George Raft was played by Joe Mantegna.
Raft has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for contributions to Motion Pictures at 6150 Hollywood Boulevard, and for television at 1500 Vine St.
George Raft is the Cockney rhyming slang for a draught/draft (i.e. a current of air).
Raft married Grayce Mulrooney, several years his senior, in 1923, long before his stardom. The pair separated soon thereafter, but the devoutly Catholic Mulrooney refused to grant a divorce, and Raft remained married to her, and continued to support her, until her death in 1970. A romantic figure in Hollywood, Raft had love affairs with Betty Grable, Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, and Mae West. He stated publicly that he wanted to marry Norma Shearer, with whom he had a long romance, but his wife's refusal to allow a divorce eventually caused Shearer to end the affair.
When James Cagney became president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1942 for a two-year term, he took a role in the guild's fight against the Mafia, which had taken an active interest in the movie industry. Cagney's wife, Billie, once received a phone call telling her that Cagney was dead. Cagney alleged that, having failed to scare him and the guild off, they sent a hit man to kill him by dropping a heavy light onto his head. On hearing about the rumor of the hit, George Raft made a call, and the hit was supposedly cancelled.
Raft was interviewed by FBI agents in 1938 and 1953. The 1938 interview was about his knowledge of Louis Lepke Buchalter and Jacob Shapiro.
Raft was investigated for tax evasion in 1942.
In 1944 Raft's name was mentioned in connection with an illegal dice game.
In 1944 he gave evidence when Bugsy Siegel was on trial for bookmaking.
In 1946 Raft was sued by an attorney for assault.
Raft was present with Bugsy Siegel in 1946 when the latter was arrested for bookmaking. Raft attended the opening of the Flamingo Hotel.
In 1953 Raft vouched for John Capone when he got out of prison.
In 1967, Raft was denied entry into the UK (where he had been installed as casino director at a casino known as the "Colony Club") due to his underworld associations.
Towards the end of his life Raft had financial troubles. He said he gave a lot of money to his estranged wife. He lent his name to a discount store that went bankrupt. He moved into an apartment and worked afternoons as a greeter in the Beverly Hills office of the Riverina Hotel. He also suffered from emphysema.
Raft died from leukemia at the age of 79 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 mortuary for a coincidental silent reunion almost half a century after their first film together.
Raft left behind no will. His estate consisted of a $10,000 insurance policy and some furniture. In the last years of his life he had mainly lived on $800 a month, a combination of social security and his pension.
Raft was interred in Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles. Raft's personal effects, wardrobe, etc., were sold by means of a simple classified advertisement, listing the lot for $800 in Hemming's Motor News in the fall of 1981.Hollywood on Parade No. A-9 (1933)
Hollywood on Parade No. B-5 (1933)
Hollywood on Parade No. B-8 (1934)
The Fashion Side of Hollywood (1935)
Screen Snapshots Series 18, No. 4 (1938)
Meet the Stars #6: Stars at Play (1941)
Hedda Hopper's Hollywood No. 2 (1941)
Hollywood Park (1946)
Screen Snapshots: Vacation at Del Mar (1949)
Raft turned down roles in the following films:The Infielder (1954) – a baseball story
Kraft Cheese Program (1936)
Lux Radio Theatre - "Cheating Cheaters" (31 August 1936) - with June Lang
Lux Radio Theatre - "Spawn of the North" (12 September 1938) - with Dorothy Lamour and Fred MacMurray
Bob Hope - "Bob is Remodeling His House" (1939)
Screen Guild Theatre: "A Mug, a Moll and a Mountaineer" (2 April 1939)
Procter and Gamble's Knickerbocker Playhouse - "Bulldog Drummond" (1939)
Campbell Soup Playhouse - "A Free Soul" (1941)
Lux Radio Theatre - "They Drive By Night" (2 June 1941) - with Lana Turner
Screen Guild Theatre - "Torrid Zone" (25 Jan 1942)
Lux Radio Theatre - "Manpower" (16 March 1942) - with Marlene Dietrich and Edward G. Robinson
Lux Radio Theatre - "Broadway" (30 November 1942) - with Lloyd Nolan
Lux Radio Theatre - "Each Dawn I Die" (22 March 1943) - with Franchot Tone
Lux Radio Theatre – Air Force (7 December 1943)
Lux Radio Theatre - "Action in the North Atlantic" (15 May 1944) - with Raymond Massey
The Cases of Mr. Ace (4 June - 3 Sept 1947) - regular series
Lux Radio Theatre- "Intrigue" (5 October 1948)
Rocky Jordan (27 June - 22 August 1951)
Martin and Lewis Show" (12 October 1951)