He went from the rough streets of Hell’s Kitchen to the harsh world of Hollywood. He had the perfect demeanor to play bad guys in movies, but he wanted to portray characters with more depth. Generous to a fault, he gave away his money to friends in need, saving nothing for his future. Because he turned down certain roles, he faded away into obscurity while Humphrey Bogart became a Hollywood legend. In his book, George Raft: The Man Who Would Be Bogart, author Stone Wallace takes his readers on a journey through Raft’s life, painting a picture of a man who had it made in Hollywood, yet was unable to escape the fact that his childhood friends became some of the most notorious mobsters in history. He was born George Ranft on September 26, 1895, in New York City’s toughest neighborhood, Hell’s Kitchen. His father, Conrad, gave up his fortune to marry the woman he loved, and was forced to work menial jobs to provide for his family. Raft did not get along very well with his father, so he spent a lot of his time on the streets, hanging around with a group of boys called the Gopher Gang, run by a kid named Owney (Owen) Madden. It was his association with Madden that would haunt him the rest of his life. By the age of thirteen, he was living on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, taking odd jobs wherever he could find them. After trying to box for a living, Raft discovered he had a natural ability for dancing. In between dancing gigs, he would do “special favors” for Madden and his friends, such as delivering bootleg alcohol to various locations. In 1923, he married Grayce Mulrooney, but it was a loveless marriage. Despite the fact that Grace would never grant him a divorce, Raft supported her until her death in 1970. Raft made his screen debut in 1929’s Queen of the Night Clubs, a movie loosely based on the life of his friend, Texas Guinan. It did not take long, however, for Hollywood to discover his underworld connections. For the rest of his life, he would either admit knowing people like Madden and Bugsy Siegel, or vehemently deny it. But there was no denying the fact that his portrayals of gangsters in the movies were based on the very people he claimed he never knew.
After leaving Paramount, Raft went to work for Warner Brothers. He had met with Jack Warner, who agreed to place him in fewer gangster movies. It was a verbal agreement, and he would soon discover that because it wasn’t written down, Warner would conveniently forget about their discussions. His first movie for Warner was Each Dawn I Die with James Cagney, and is considered one of his finest performances. It was during his time with Warner Brothers that Raft turned down several roles that could have made him a legend. He turned down roles for various reasons: he didn’t want to portray the heavy; he didn’t want to play characters that badmouthed mothers or were disrespectful to women. Yet, at the same time, he would turn around and accept roles that he had previously turned down in other movies. He turned down a role in The Ghost because he felt the role was not important enough. John Garfield accepted the role and achieved Hollywood stardom. Three movies that Raft turned down, Dead End, High Sierra, and The Maltese Falcon, made Humphrey Bogart a Hollywood icon. Why Raft failed to see the merits of those movies is unclear, but it is evident that because of this failure, his career eventually petered out. He was relegated to self-parody roles in movies – Some Like It Hot, for example – before falling out of public awareness. His remaining years were spent on various business deals, including a club he ran successfully in London for a short time. After traveling to the U.S. for a short visit, he was not allowed to return to England. Many people believe it was because of his underworld connections. Thanks to his many friends, he was able to spend his final years in relative comfort until his death in 1980 from cancer. In his foreword, film historian and author Alan K. Rode (Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy) notes that “Raft on screen is frequently imbued with a quality that eluded him during his lifetime: authenticity.” Rode also mentions that Raft himself admitted he was no actor, and points out that Raft was a very reluctant actor who found success in the 1930s by avoiding acting roles. Through interviews with Raft’s co-stars and friends, Wallace shows Raft as a man who was clearly misunderstood and greatly under-appreciated in Hollywood. While it’s hard to imagine anyone besides Bogart portraying Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, it would be safe to say that Raft could have built a more successful career had he not turned away from those star-making roles.