By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
From humble beginnings as a barely literate street kid in Manhattan, and talented hoofer, George Raft, born in 1895 (died 1980) to a German father and Italian mother, rose to prominence as a Hollywood actor. But he could not divorce himself from his roots; Raft’s tough-guy persona on the silver screen was not an act—gangsters were his heroes (and sometime mentors).
Because of Raft’s alleged ties to infamous mobsters he became a marked man, resulting in the compilation (between 1944 and 1967) of a 127-page FBI George Raft dossier (of which there are 111discernable pages). What follows is a page from that file.
"Raft was interviewed by agents of the Bureau in 1938 in connection with the investigation looking to the location of Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter. At that time Raft admitted association with Benjamin ‘Bugs’ Siegel, who was a member of the ‘Big Six,’ a group of leaders of gangs in New York City during the late Prohibition era. He also admitted knowing of [name redacted], a close associate of Buchalter and Jacob Shapiro. Raft at this time stated that when he arrived in California in 1927, he was picked up by the authorities due to his past connections in the café business in New York, but that after a short time they discontinued bothering him. [Redacted], Paramount Pictures, Inc., stated that, according to his understanding, before Raft became a movie star he was a collector of beer money in New York when Prohibition was in effect. Gary Cooper, the movie actor, was interviewed at this time also, and he advised Raft was an individual who was somewhat unable to keep pace with the salary he was receiving, and that Raft had a distorted sense of loyalty to his old New York associates, who were not always of the best type. In 1939 Harry ‘Champ’ Segal, a former New York City racketeer, advised he had associated with George Raft in Hollywood. At the time of the Buchalter investigation, information was also received that Raft had induced one [name redacted] to come to Hollywood from New York City."
Benny Siegel often spoke of George Raft as a great star, an actor whose gangster characterizations were so authentic they defied imitation and comparison. Raft replied, in turn, that Siegel "tried to imitate me and tried to copy my style." Raft did not dissemble when asked about his acquaintances: "I met Meyer Lansky, but I never associated with him. In my time I knew them all. Al Capone, Joe Adonis, Frank Castello, Vito Genovese, Dutch Schultz, ‘Machine Gun’ Jack McGurn, Lucky Luciano, Vinnie Coll. I’ll tell you the truth, I admired them." (Quoted in Lewis Yablonsky, George Raft, 1974)
George Raft was born on September 26, 1895, in a ten-family tenement on New York’s 41st Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, in a densely-packed immigrant neighborhood called Hell’s Kitchen. Those were the streets that produced such luminaries as Vincent ‘Mad Dog’ Coll, heavyweight champ Gene Tunney and Owney Madden, an immigrant from Liverpool, England, who would become a powerful mob boss.
George’s father, Conrad Ranft, was of German descent. Conrad met and married into an Italian family from Little Italy. Eva Ranft was a striking, dark, swarthy woman. Her parents had a small produce business, selling vegetables from a horse-drawn wagon. Disowned by his parents because he had married an Italian, Conrad decided to strike out on his own. He worked as a delivery man and was eventually promoted to route supervisor in the Wanamaker Department Store’s warehouse.
The couple had ten children, nine of them boys, with George the eldest. George inherited his mother’s Italian dark looks; the other children were more Germanic in appearance. This difference created friction in the home and caused George to estrange himself from his family. By age 13 he turned to the streets, rarely attending school and spending his nights sleeping where he could. In his late teens he abbreviated his surname to Raft. It was on those unforgiving streets that Owney Madden befriended George.
George lived the life of a layabout, scrounging for sustenance where he could. (On occasion, Madden would slip George a few dollars to tide him over the rough spots.) He rode the rails to seek work in the upstate orchids and had a few hassles with the "bulls." When his dream of playing professional baseball did not materialize ("You can field, but you can’t hit."), he turned to boxing. His last fight sent him to the hospital with a broken nose and a ripped ear that required twenty-two stitches. The pool room was a better fit. He won often enough to pay for his keep.
Dancing was to become George’s salvation. His keen sense of rhythm and elegant style and dark looks were perfectly suited to the era. Once noticed, George’s life took an optimistic turn. Prize money rolled in with the winning of a succession of ballroom contests. Melton Berle, the comedian, was later to say of George that no one had his class and ability: "This kid’s going to be a star."
George worked with the Latin lover Rodolfo Valentino in the rather notorious "Tearooms," where ladies looking for adventure would gather in the afternoons. The ladies would look over the male dancers and notify the hostess of their selections. As Raft noted in his biography, "My whole life then was dancing. Often, that led to my getting laid. In those days the women would proposition me. I had my rent to pay." His dancing prowess led to vaudeville and Broadway.
Raft was initiated into the gangster life in the early years of Prohibition. He trained as a driver to ride shotgun ahead or behind beer trucks from Madden’s illegal brewery in Lower Manhattan. In the dead of night the convoy would go hell bent to 110th Street (to prevent hijacking by other gangs) where Dutch Schultz would then take command for the remaining run to customers north of the city.
Hollywood beckoned. In 1927, Raft left New York for the West Coast where the possibility of a film career awaited. Given his exotic looks he was judged as a potential replacement for the recently deceased Rudolfo Valentino. In his first film (Queen of the Nightclub, 1929) he displayed his dancing talents. During the next few years he watched his resources deplete as opportunities become fewer and far between. George’s breakout film (Scarface, 1932) was his first gangster role and triggered a complete career turn and the end of his Latin Lover stereotype.
At 5 feet 7 inches, the snappy attired Italian, with an understated acting style, caught the eye of the film’s director, Howard Hawks, who commented: "George had a certain unique look. The camera likes some people, and it liked George. He underplayed beautifully, not too tough, too strong." Scarface became a landmark American mob film and remains so to this day.
The film’s theme involves Al Capone and his gang. George played the role of Capone’s bodyguard, Frank Rio. He had originally encountered Capone in person in New York’s gambling dens when Big Al went by the name of Al Brown. Meeting again after of the release of Scarface, Capone wanted to talk about the film. "Georgie," he said, "so you been my bodyguard, Frank Rio, in dis Scarface pitcher. Well, youse tell them guys in Hollywood that they don’t know Al Capone. They bumped me off in da end and nobody, nobody’s bumping Al off while he’s running Chicago. Yeah, you tell ‘em dat. I see youse tossing a coin thru the pitcher. It was a lousy nickel. You tell ‘em if any my boys are tossing coins, they’ll be twenty-dollar pieces. Yeah, I liked the pitcher." Actually Big Al loved the pitcher, as did his boys.
The following article appeared in the Los Angeles Times in the issue of September 30, 1953: "Actor George Raft helped his ‘old pal’ John Capone, brother of the late mobster, ‘Scarface’ Al Capone, get out of jail here. The coin-flipping film star was in Capone’s Beverly Hills Hotel room last night when the police burst in to arrest the Chicagoan and a friend, Joe Laino, 42, on suspicion of robbery, the customary ‘roust’ booking."
As an actor playing mobster roles, George Raft has his influence on impressionable youth who sought to emulate his on-screen persona. There were those like "Crazy" Joe Gallo, who exemplified the saying, "Life imitating art." A neighbor who knew Joey as a kid on the block said that "Joey was the kind of guy who wanted to grow up to be like George Raft. He would stand on the corner when he was fifteen flipping a half-dollar, and practiced talking without moving his lips."
George favored the high life, the night life, good clothes, fine wines. He was a big spender. Money, for him, was not be flipped but to slip effortlessly through his fingers. In his late years when asked what happened to the millions he had earned from his seventy-six films, with his quick wit he responded, "Part of the ten million I spent on gambling, part on booze, part on women. The rest I spent foolishly."
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