George Raft was the 1930s film star whose off-screen antics were a little too close to the gangster films he starred in. Although he gained fame for his titillating dance moves, the stain of his past was something that he just couldn’t rub out. From his behind-the-scenes brawls with co-stars to his string of famous lovers, Raft’s bad-boy antics only led him to a tragic fall from grace.
1. He Was A Carny
George Raft was born in Hell’s Kitchen to Eva and Conrad Ranft in September of 1901. It’s probably fair to say that his life was a circus—and not the very fun kind—from early on. With a grandfather who worked on merry-go-rounds and a father who worked for carnivals, Raft was destined to work in the entertainment industry. He just didn’t know it yet.
2. He Slept With The Fishes
Money was pretty tight in Hell’s Kitchen and Raft grew up the hard way. From an early age, he learned that he would have to provide for himself and he set out to do just that. Every day after school, Raft worked as an errand boy and a fish-wrapper. He wasn’t just an errand boy though. He was something of an errant, wayward boy, as well.
3. He Grew Up In A Lion’s Den
Growing up in Hell’s Kitchen in the 1900s and 1910s, put Raft in the epicenter of lawlessness at the height of America’s mob era. One of Raft’s lifelong friends was the infamous Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel whose rap sheet was longer (and bloodier) than Raft’s soon-to-be extensive filmography. However, Raft’s childhood associations would haunt him for life.
4. His Parents Kicked Him Out
Raft’s after-school hustles must not have been paying very well—or his grades suffered—because his parents took a drastic step. Before he had even hit puberty, Raft’s parents kicked him out of the house and sent him uptown to live with his grandparents. But it wasn’t long before even his grandparents learned they couldn’t straighten him out.
5. He Wasn’t One For Schooling
The independent-minded youngster didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, but he definitely didn’t want to go to school. At just 12 years of age, Raft dropped out. And he didn’t much care for living with his grandparents either so, one year after leaving school, he decided to run away from home. He would have to fight to make it on his own.
6. He Tried Everything
At 13, Raft was all alone in the Big Apple. Scary as that was, it was also the opportunity he had been looking for. He could be whatever he wanted…he just didn’t know what that was. And until he finally found his true calling, he tried everything from an electrician’s apprentice to a professional boxer. But we’re using the word “professional” a little loosely.
Boxing was a bloody sport, and Raft soon learned just how dangerous it could be.
7. He Stepped Into The Ring
At the age of 15, Raft threw his hat into the ring. Literally. Competing under the name “Dutch Rauft”, the would-be movie star tried his hand—or fist—at boxing. The recordkeeping from the time is a little dodgy but suffice to say that, in his two-year career, Raft was no Muhammad Ali. His opponents regularly knocked him out.
But it soon seemed that Raft had a knack for failure. And as far as the knockouts were concerned, the hits just kept coming.
8. He Struck Out
Raft’s boxing career probably suffered because he was spending too much time at the batting cage instead of in the ring. He played minor league baseball but punched better than he batted—frankly, he did neither particularly well—and his team dropped him. Still, Raft wasn’t about to give up. He was up for anything, and there was still one talent he hadn’t tapped into.
9. He Was A Copycat
As aimless as Raft seemed, he didn’t seem particularly bothered. Later, he summed up his teenage explorations, saying, “I was just trying to find something that I liked that would make me a living[…]I saw guys fighting, so I fought. I saw guys playing ball, so I played ball.” Thank goodness he didn’t see anyone do anything bad. Or did he?
10. He Had Happy Feet
Raft’s attempts at finding his passion brought him full circle. Before shipping him off to live with his grandparents, Raft’s parents had taught him how to dance. He hadn’t thought much of his dance moves until he realized that people were willing to pay to watch others dance. He later recalled, “Then I saw guys dancing…and getting paid for it!”
Turns out, George Raft knew how to move.
11. He Was A Champion
Raft took to dancing like a, well, like a raft to water. He wasn’t making tons of money at first and had to supplement his income with taxi driving. But then he hit it big. Raft entered a Charleston competition—that funny, fast-paced hands-over-knees dance—and took home the gold. He finally found something that he could make a career out of.
12. He Had The Moves
Before the Macarena and the Harlem shake, there was the Charleston. Just like flossing, the Charleston dance craze gripped 1910s America. And no one was better at the Charleston than George Raft. Raft took his Charleston to nightclubs throughout New York and even got a mention in Variety magazine for it. His version was a little more interesting though.
13. He Touched Himself
It wasn’t just Raft’s fast-paced and goofy Charleston that had the audiences at nightclubs entertained. He seduced them. Raft later recalled of his dancing days, “I could have been the first X-rated dancer[…]I was very [sensual]. I used to caress myself as I danced.” He must have had the sultriest knees of all time. Still, Raft’s unique moves made him stand out, and in the world of entertainment, this gave him a serious leg up.
14. He Had Royal Ascent
Whatever Raft’s Charleston trick really was, one thing was clear. His dance moves were getting too big for the Big Apple alone and Raft took his scintillating gyrations all over the world. He popularised the tango in Paris, Rome, Vienna, and London. He even had royal fans. The Duke of Windsor, for example, was “an ardent fan and supporter.”
But not all of Raft’s fans were of such high pedigree.
15. He Had Friends In Low Places
While working the nightclub scene in New York, Raft’s fanbase expanded to include some seedier characters. The Hell’s Kitchen native befriended the likes of Enoch “Nucky” Johnson and Larry Fay—New York City underworld gangsters involved in bootlegging, gambling, political corruption, and other unmentionable “hobbies.” But in the midst of all these vices, Raft was no choirboy himself.
16. He Took The Wheel
One of the reasons that Raft probably made easy friends with the rough crowd was because he had grown up with them. In fact, Raft was pretty tough himself and he had some “moves” on and off the stage. The Charleston dancer was, for a time, the “wheelman” for his childhood friend Siegel’s underworld syndicate. He later said that he only narrowly avoided becoming a gangster himself—and for one surprising reason.
17. His Friends Helped Him Up
“Be careful of the company you keep,” is sage advice we’ve all heard from our parents. Oddly enough, Raft’s ruffian friends were actually trying to elevate him and not drag him down into the gutter with them. One day, Raft’s friend, the infamous Irishman Owney Madden, suggested that Raft give it a go in Hollywood. That was all the encouragement Raft needed.
But he was leaving a lot behind.
18. He Almost Led A Quiet Life
Some years before Raft even thought of trying his luck in Hollywood, he had been prepared to settle down in New York. While he was never going to lead a “quiet” life, Raft did manage to find a nice woman to call his wife. In 1923, at the age of 22, Raft tied the knot to one Grace Mulrooney. But their marriage wasn’t exactly a traditional one.
19. He Had A Ball And Chain
Raft might have been way ahead of the curve when it comes to polyamory and open relationships. His marriage to Mulrooney wasn’t ever going to work and they both knew it. But Mulrooney was a devout Catholic and couldn’t simply agree to a divorce. But if they separated—permanently—then, Raft could still be a free agent. And boy, was he free.
20. He Was The Original Scarface
Raft left his odd marriage behind and moved to Hollywood in 1927. Much like in his teenage years, success didn’t come easy. He had to work the nightclubs in Los Angeles until 1932 before he finally landed a supporting role in the iconic gangster film, Scarface. Although, given Raft’s friend circle and “wheelman” credentials, it’s not clear whether he was really acting or just being himself.
21. His Career Came Down To A Coin Toss
Raft was many things, but he certainly wasn’t born to be an actor. One of the writers on Scarface said of Raft, “He realized he wasn’t a good actor, which he wasn’t. But he knew if he reacted to what other people said, he was effective.” So, to make his character stand out, Raft began flipping a coin. Now, the coin-flipping thug is practically a meme.
As Raft fumbled his way through his big break, he took a literal tumble.
22. He Crossed The Threshold
On the set of his breakout film, Raft suffered a small injury. While he had taken on tough guys as a boxer, he was no match for…props. In one of his more physical scenes, Raft took a fall and bumped his head on a doorframe. Though he was successfully adjusting to his life in Hollywood, those weren’t the kinds of “headshots” that agents were looking for.
23. He Was All The Rage
Raft proved to everyone that you didn’t have to be a great actor to succeed in Hollywood. Raft’s dashing good looks, suave dance moves, and coin-flipping menace made him an irresistible hit with audiences. His ties to the New York underworld also added an element of mystique to his public persona and Paramount Pictures just had to have him. And so did all of the ladies.
24. He Was No Romeo
Maybe the only type of guy more seductive than a Casanova or more sensual than a Romeo is a simple bad boy. And Raft was the “baddest” of boys. Early on in his film career, he made a few dance flicks with the leading lady Carole Lombard. If the rumors are true, then these two Hollywood stars had rhythm on-set and off-set.
25. He Had A Famous Affair
Even though he was, according to the law and the Catholic Church, still married, Raft was a free man in the eyes of Carole Lombard. Allegedly, the co-stars struck up an affair and from the sounds of it, Raft had love to spare. Lombard told one of her friends that Raft was the best lover she had ever had. However, not everyone in Hollywood gave Raft such a warm welcome.
26. He Wasn’t All Bad
Raft wasn’t trying to cash in on his bad-boy image—at least, not totally. Not long after signing with Paramount, the film company suspended him for refusing to take a gangster role. Raft said, “It’s not that I mind being the guy on the wrong side of the law. 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.”
Of course, studio executives weren’t the only ones Raft fought with.
27. He Clashed With His Co-Stars
Raft’s, how should we say, “rough and tumble”, personality got him into trouble with his co-stars. While his female on-set colleagues cozied up to him, his male counterparts were less impressed. On the set of 1933’s The Bowery, for example, Raft fell out with co-star Wallace Beery. They exchanged a lot more than just mean words.
28. He Was Out Cold
In The Bowery, Raft’s and Beery’s characters get into a fistfight. Before filming the scene, Beery asked Raft if he could throw the first punch. Raft (stupidly) agreed and in a throwback to his boxing days, was seeing stars after just one blow. When he finally came to, he wanted to fight Beery for real. The crew was so concerned for Beery’s safety that they had to keep them apart.
Unfortunately, Raft was always jonesing for a fight and it got him into a world of trouble.
29. He Always Made An Exit
Between 1934 and 1937, Raft just couldn’t stay out of fights, with co-stars and studio executives alike. The boxer-turned-baseballer-turned-dancer-turned-actor refused more roles than he took and was at constant loggerheads with Paramount Pictures. The tabloids even noticed his diva-like behavior, calling him “Hollywood’s authority on walk outs.”
They might not have been referring to his film career though.
30. He Had Three Square Affairs A Day
Raft’s bad boy charm worked better than men’s body spray in cheesy TV commercials—the women just couldn’t resist him. And his talent for “walking out” extended to bedrooms, not just film sets. According to the rumors, Raft took on as many as three new lovers a day. Ridiculous as that rumor sounds, there may be a kernel of truth to it.
31. He Was A Snake
In the elite Hollywood circles and close-knit nightclub scenes in which he moved; George Raft acquired a provocative nickname of unknown origin. Hollywood’s leading ladies and nightclub waitresses began referring to Raft as the “Black Snake.” Supposedly, it had to do with his, erm, endowment. Now we see why Lombard was so obsessed.
But while he happily sinned behind closed doors, Raft was so much more than just a naughty lover.
32. He Was Really A Saint
Despite his frequent dustups with his co-stars and producers, Raft wasn’t all bad. Actually, he was kind of a saint (ok, maybe that’s pushing it). Allegedly, Raft’s co-star on the set of 1939’s Each Dawn I Die, James Cagney, ran afoul of some of Raft’s disreputable friends. The mob was going to handle it the way they always do—“take out the trash” as it were—but Raft convinced them to spare the strait-laced Cagney.
However, as selfless as this gesture seemed, Raft may have had an ulterior motive.
33. He Was Sensitive
Raft’s intervention on Cagney’s behalf might have had more to do with preserving his own public image. Fistfights were one thing but dropping stage lights on A-listers was another. Film producer Hal Wallis said, “Our association with Raft was a constant struggle from start to finish. Hypersensitive to public accusations of underworld connections, he flatly refused to play the heavy in any film.”
34. He Wasn’t One For Play
Raft tried to put his gangster past behind him but it was hopeless. His next role was in 1941’s Manpower—aptly named for its behind-the-scenes escapades. Raft and co-star Edward G. Robinson didn’t exactly get along on the set. Robinson accused Raft of being “touchy, difficult and thoroughly impossible to play with.” Raft wasn’t exactly playing though.
35. He Had A Prize Fight
Robinson’s negative views on Raft originated when Raft spun Robinson around too roughly during a scene. Robinson accused Raft of being too aggressive and, not surprisingly, a fistfight broke out. And that’s when Raft’s attempt at rehabilitating his public image vaporized on the spot. The fight ended up all over the newspapers.
Still, Raft’s experience on the set of Manpower had a sweet silver lining.
36. He Was Gentle…With Girls
Raft had a long list of female stars he wanted to “work” with. And in 1941’s Manpower, he had the opportunity to work alongside Marlene Dietrich. After filming wrapped, the leading lady gushed, “George Raft is the gentlest man I ever knew—at least with girls.” It seemed clear that Dietrich had gotten a generous helping of the Black Snake’s charms.
But while Raft reveled in delighting his many lady friends, his other friend group was in dire straits.
37. His Friends Went Down In Blood
Try as he might, Raft couldn’t outrun his past or his connections to the seedy underworld. In 1946, he tried to strike out on his own as a film producer but after a short run of successes, his films started flopping. To make matters worse, the bloody demise of his old friend, Siegel, became front-page news and audiences were abuzz about Raft’s connections to the fallen gangster.
Before long, the public started to turn against him.
38. He Tried To Rewrite His Past
The true nature of Raft’s connections was becoming too egregious for audiences to bear. Gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper, tried to help Raft by writing a puff piece to launder his reputation. We imagine she “owed” him one. Hopper wrote that Raft “has made millions, but hasn’t got ’em due to a fondness for gambling and a loyalty to helping old friends.”
However, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t rewrite the past. He’d made some bad choices and they were coming around to haunt him.
39. He Was Full Of Regrets
Despite his best efforts, Raft’s production company couldn’t produce a single blockbuster and Raft regretted his decision to go clean. He said, “As far as films are concerned, I’m [done]. Nobody has been breaking their necks trying to hire me…I want to play heavies again. I think I made a mistake going straight.” Raft missed the spotlight, but getting it back would prove harder than expected.
40. He Had A Comeback
In an attempt to make a comeback, Raft had to swallow some pride. He teamed up with Edward G. Robinson once again on the set of 1955’s A Bullet for Joey. While the film saw Raft return to his gangster ways, the film was a disaster. Audiences had simply had enough of his bad-boy swag. Sadly, this was Raft’s truth. Having fallen out of favor, he was more lost than ever before.
41. He Took A Cuban Vacation
Raft’s fall from Hollywood grace was steep. The aging gangster left Los Angeles and went to work as a greeter for a hotel and casino—the historic Capri Casino—in Havana, Cuba. Of course, Capri Casino wasn’t exactly on the straight and narrow, but lest we forget, this was right up Raft’s alley. Even as he struggled to get his life together, the washed-up actor still dreamed of returning to the big screen.
42. His Luck Ran Out
Raft got another go at Hollywood in 1959’s Some Like It Hot. While the film was, itself, a giant success, audiences had already issued their verdict on Raft. Despite having spent the past few years in a casino, Raft’s luck had run out. Instead of revitalizing his career, the success of the film only added to Marilyn Monroe’s fame.
In other words, Raft was guilty of being a snooze.
43. He Had A Stomach Ache
Like most of the stars of his era, Raft’s career ended with a whimper and a string of cameos. From 1960 to his final film in 1980, Raft received little more than “also appeared” credits in ultimately forgettable films. Although, he did manage to scrape up a starring role in one Alka-Seltzer commercial in the 1970s…It’s safe to say that the Academy Award is still pending.
44. He Was Banned
Surprisingly, despite his sordid past, Raft managed to move in decent circles. The Duke of Windsor was, after all, a fan. A fan that Raft would never see again. The days of bootlegging and the celebrity outlaw had passed and the time for justice was fast approaching. Raft’s connections to the underworld got him banned from the UK as an “undesirable.”
Clearly, they hadn’t gone through his Rolodex.
45. He Had Many, Many Famous Affairs
The UK might have considered Raft to be undesirable but, in his day, he was the most sought-after man in town. While Raft had more than a few “public” affairs, he managed to keep some others on the down-low. Throughout his career, tabloids still managed to link Raft to Tallulah Bankhead and Mae West. In the midst of all of his affairs, he did manage to find true love.
46. He Found True Love
Raft finally found the love of his life in Norma Shearer and the two carried on the longest affair of Raft’s life. That is to say, they dated for more than a night. Nevertheless, Raft’s wife, Mulrooney, still wouldn’t grant him a divorce. While he tolerated racketeering, polygamy was a step too far. Unable to marry, Shearer eventually lost interest in Raft and left him.
47. He Was Supportive
Despite the fact that Mulrooney was denying Raft the true freedom that he wanted, he never resented her for it. The “tough” guy clearly had a sore spot for his estranged wife. Throughout all of their years of separation, Raft continued to support Mulrooney. It might have been no sweat off his back in his glory days but, in the end, he wasn’t exactly a rich man.
48. He Had A Small Allowance
Towards the end of his life, Raft had very little money and absolutely no fame. To make matters worse, all of his former connections were in no position to help him as they had before. It’s kind of hard to lend a helping hand through prison bars…or caskets. After flying high, Raft was surviving on $800 a week after having to sell his home. But his troubles didn’t end there.
49. He Was In The Classifieds
Raft passed away in November of 1980. While he was still living in sunny Los Angeles at the time, his passing revealed the desperation of his situation. He left behind only a small life insurance policy and some furniture. What little belongings he had, instead of causing a frenzy at auction, were sold in the classifieds.
50. He Was No Actor
Raft definitely lacked the acting skills of a Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable and he seemed to know it. The gangster dancer never watched himself in film and, in all fairness to him, it’s not like he was trying to be something he wasn’t. He later said of his career, “I don’t know what I do, but it’s not acting.”