Raft, George (1903-1980)

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Raft, George (1903-1980)

Screen actor George Raft's greatest lasting contribution to the film industry was in creating the clichéd image of the caring and compassionate gangster who was more victim than victimizer. Raft may be more famous, however, for turning down Humphrey Bogart's four star-making roles than for any of the parts he did play. Raft was offered Dead End, High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca; he turned each one down only to be quickly eclipsed by Bogart, who had been struggling to make a name for himself.

Raft's acting career was based on the premise that as a former gangster himself (he was friends with racketeer Owney Maddon and at one time aspired to be a big shot in Maddon's liquor mob), he would excel at playing one. Raft preferred playing tough, brutal men who were revealed to be not as cold and heartless as they pretended. He was very concerned with how crime was portrayed on-screen and would insist on stipulations in his contract about how his character could treat women and children, how knowledgeable about the crime scene his character was, and what his idea of crime was—Raft refused to play an out-and-out rat. Unfortunately, Raft was never a very expressive actor, so he managed to connect with the audience in only a few of his films.

Raft was born in New York City in 1903 and was brought up in the Hell's Kitchen area. As a young man, according to his autobiography, he was a layabout who did some boxing, winning fifteen of his twenty-two matches. He became a dancer and dance hall gigolo, and began to get parts in shows such as City Chap, Gay Paree, Palm Beach Nights, and No Foolin'. Maddon sent Raft to Texas Quinan's nightclub, where Miss Quinan suggested that he take a part in her movie, Queen of the Night Clubs (1929). Heading to Los Angeles, Raft was discovered at the Brown Derby restaurant by director Rowland Brown, who gave him a bit part in Quick Millions. Raft's best parts were in Taxi! (1932); Scarface (1932), as the coin-flipping best friend of Tony Camonte, the main character; Each Dawn I Die (1939), as an idealistic gang leader who learns honesty from James Cagney's con; and Dancers in the Dark (1932), as a murderer.

Thinking they had found another Valentino, Paramount signed Raft to a contract and starred him in lackluster features, then suspended him after he refused to appear in The Story of Temple Drake. While he had a few tough-guy parts, he did his best work at Paramount as a dancer in Bolero (1934) with Carole Lombard and in Rumba (1935). Raft also objected to his role in Souls at Sea (1937), and went on suspension until his part was more sympathetically written. The gambit paid off and he earned an Oscar nomination for his work as a likeable, romantic tough guy with a sinister slave-trading past who spends most of his time romancing Olympe Bradna. Throughout the story, his character is encouraged to be good by an idealistic Gary Cooper, resulting in Raft's redemption.

By the end of the thirties, Paramount let Raft go, and Warner Brothers made a bid for his services, teaming him with Cagney and Bogart in such pictures as Each Dawn I Die and They Drive by Night (1940). Raft refused to appear in South of Suez, and once Bogart became established, the studio was quite willing to let Raft go. From there, Raft drifted from one minor part to another, appearing mostly in forgettable B films from United Artists or RKO. He finally got a couple of good parts in Black Widow (1954) and Rogue Cop (1954), but they were not enough to reestablish him in the public eye. He took a cameo role in Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and appeared in the television series I'm the Law in 1953.

Nevertheless, Billy Wilder remembered Raft and cast him as gangster "Spats" Baxter in the comedy classic Some Like It Hot (1959). He made another cameo appearance in Ocean's Eleven (1960), the first Rat Pack film, and was given parts in Jerry Lewis's Ladies' Man (1961) and The Patsy (1964). In 1965, Raft was indicted for income tax evasion and could have ended his life behind bars, but the court proved merciful and the case did not go to trial. From there Raft traveled Europe and made a few disastrous comedies from a high in Casino Royale (1967) to a low in Otto Preminger's Skidoo (1968). Unable to get work, he spent his declining years watching television.

—Dennis Fischer

Further Reading:

Neibaur, James L. Tough Guy: The American Movie Macho. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Co., 1989.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. New York, Bonanza Books, 1970.

Thompson, David. A Biographical Dictionary of Film. 3rd ed. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Yablonski, Lewis. George Raft. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1974.