Was he the only movie star who was also a member of the Mob? Did he turn down more hit roles in hit films than any other actor? These are questions still asked decades after the light no longer shines on George Raft.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, noting today that the famously misguided actor was offered but passed on the Humphrey Bogart roles in The Maltese Falcon and in High Sierra. Those two pictures launched Bogey as a major star soon eclipsing Raft in gangster and tough guy parts.
In addition, can you believe that Raft actually turned down Bogey’s classic role as ‘Rick’ in Casablanca?
But, no question that Raft, for all his boneheaded picks of movie parts, was quite a force in his own right.
At his peek in the Thirties and early Forties, he conveyed onscreen the dress and attitude of a mobster — unsmiling, snarling, fast with his fists — so accurately that HE became an inspiration to countless offscreen gangster wannabees.
It helped that he really palled around with such luminaries as Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky and Owney Madden. Even all-powerful studio bosses were reluctant to mess with Raft because of his underworld ties.
His notable Forties tough-guy roles were in They Drive By Night (abetted by tough gal Ann Sheridan and, yes, Bogey), Manpower and House Across the Bay. By the mid-Forties his career at Warner Brothers, traditionally Hollywood’s ‘tough guy’ studio, was largely over, and he was reduced to bit parts 10 years later.
We discovered an entirely different view of the actor contained in the 1976 autobiography of another legendary screen tough guy, James Cagney (Cagney By Cagney). Cagney and Raft costarred in Warner Bros.’ 1939 crime drama, Each Dawn I Die, in which Jimmy played an innocent reporter jailed for murder while George was his jailhouse friend, ‘Hood’ Stacey.
George was a real pro, letter perfect in his lines every day, every word. I must say I can’t say the same for myself, wrote Cagney. An occasional visitor to the set was — Fred Astaire??
Cagney explains: Freddie had been in the big shows (produced by legendary Twenties impresario Charles Dillingham) in New York around the time George was playing nightclubs there. That was how they got to know each other, and Freddie had great regard for George as a dancer…
George Raft a dancer?
Well, yes. Raft was born in New York City of immigrant German stock (his surname at birth was Ranft) in either 1895, 1901 or 1903 — take your pick since the record books are unclear on this. He grew up in a tough urban neighborhood, and learned early to dress sharply, take care of business and survive.
He also happened to be a pretty fair dancer with show business aspirations he shared with his mother.
Wrote Cagney: George unwound and began telling some vividly interesting stories about his mother and himself in their early days of privation. When he was fifteen and his mother in her early thirties, they used to enter flatfoot waltz contests in hopes of getting the five-dollar prize….He and his mother did very well on the dance-hall circuit, and later on when he got into the nightclubs, he did a very fast and very good eccentric Charleston.
Cagney discovered that Raft and Astaire shared other qualities. Both these very sensitive fellas were shy of each other, keenly self-conscious. I realized at once that that very little would be said unless I jumped in and played straight man for them. I did so gladly.
Raft recounted his early night club hoofing days. George told us that when he was working for the clubs, he really was working for the Mob — capital M. They, of course, owned all the New York nightclubs, Cagney wrote. In a single night in New York, George would work as many as seven nightclubs, going from one to the other, repeating his very strenuous act in each establishment.
Cagney also recounted an incident involving Raft and Peter Lorre, who were making a picture together. Lorre, it seems, assumed that George’s natural gentleness made him an easy mark. Lorre felt greatly superior to George, regarding him as a lowbrow.
During rehearsals, Lorre kept trying to guide Raft to his mark by grabbing his arm. Said Raft, ‘Don’t take my arm. Just tell me what you’ve got in mind.’ Lorre chose to ignore the warning.
Reported Cagney: Once more Lorre took forceful charge and bang! Lorre got smacked right between the eyes, knocking him ass over teakettle. Then George said very nicely, ‘I told you not to do that.’ Mr. Lorre didn’t do it again.
In 1943’s Backround to Danger, director Raoul Walsh’s treatment of a spy thriller from the reliable Eric Ambler, Raft stars in a daffy plot about Nazis supposedly enticing the then USSR to invade Turkey in order to destabilize the region. Sidney Greenstreet oozes evil in the role of “Colonel Robinson,” another Nazi mastermind in disguise. It’s all great fun abetted by the appearance of, yes, Peter Lorre.
Trivia point — Raft is one of the few Hollywood actors to have a movie based on his life filmed while he was still alive. Who can forget 1961’s Allied Artists production of The George Raft Story, costarring Ray Danton as Raft and one Jayne Mansfield as his lover of the time, Lisa Lang?