Most of America likes to imagine Hollywood as a fantasy land where a pretty girl or a handsome young man came make it on their own merit. It is true to a certain extent, but it ignores the fact that the Movies mean big money, the sort of money that can’t help but attract an undesirable element. The big studio moguls and mafia crime bosses came from a similar background, European Jews or Sicilians who had a history of protecting themselves from the outside world.
Like the most notorious Mafiosi, the Big Studio heads were a law unto themselves, with the ability to make problems â€œgo awayâ€ for the stars working for them. How much money the Mob invested in Hollywood is hard to measure, but it is well known that organized crime wove its way into the very fabric of the Movie Colony.
Only two film stars were known to be mob insiders, Frank Sinatra, and George Raft. Raft was born to German immigrant parents, probably in 1901 (records are unclear). He grew up on the streets of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen and was childhood pals with Bugsy Siegel and Owney Madden. George was a talented dancer and a snappy dresser who would have made it in show business without mob connections.
As a young man, George danced in many of the same nightclubs frequented by Rudolph Valentino before Valentino became a movie star. Flamboyant speakeasy hostess Texas Guinan took Raft under her wing for a while during prohibition and helped to find him work on Broadway, but he had mostly chorus-boy roles. He made the move to Hollywood in 1929, and his big break came as Paul Muni’s coin-flipping sidekick in the Howard Hughes production of Scarface (1932), which was loosely based on the life of Al Capone.
Raft went on to be one of the big three gangster actors of the Thirties, along with James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. His mob affiliation became an open secret (when one of Gary Cooper‘s romantic indiscretions put him on a gangster’s hit list, Raft supposedly made a phone call and got the contract canceled). It is said that Raft’s fashionable Hollywood roles â€œtaught the mob how to dressâ€. He campaigned for Paramount to hire his friend Texas Guinan for Night After Night (1932), thinking that the film (which was based on Guinan’s experience as a speakeasy operator) would launch her movie career. Instead, Mae West got the role, and her star began to rise.
George Raft topped Humphrey Bogart in box office clout through the Thirties, but when Raft turned down the lead in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon in 1941, Bogey made the move from supporting player to major Hollywood force and Raft’s star began to fade. There are rumors that Raft also turned down the role of Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942), but internal Warner Bros memos fail to substantiate this.
In 1942, James Cagney was elected to head S.A.G., and he led the Guildâ€™s fight to get the mob out of the movie business. Cagney alleged that a contract was put out to eliminate him by dropping a heavy movie light on his head. Raft picked up the phone again, called in a few favors, and the hit was canceled. Although Raft still managed to fill leading man roles through the Forties, the quality of the films steadily declined. By 1950, he was reduced to working as a greeter in a mob owned casino in Havana.
During the summer of 1951, Raft stepped into the role of Rocky Jordan on CBS Radio. Jordan had a more than passing similarity to Casablanca‘s Rick Blaine. He was a nightclub owner in Cairo, and in each episode Rocky encounters a â€œcrime, a mystery, a beautiful woman, or a combination of all threeâ€. Raft assumed the role created by radio veteran Jack Moyles in 1948. In 1952, Moyles began starring in Douglas of the World for AFRS. Raft was set for a comeback when he satirized his gangster image in Some Like It Hot (1959), but the comeback never materialized.
George Raft died from leukemia on November 24, 1980, in Los Angeles, he was 79 years old. Mae West had passed away two days earlier, and their bodies were stored together in the same mortuary. Raft’s personal effects were sold in 1981 for $800 through a classified ad in Hemming’s Motor News. Two Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame are dedicated honoring George Raft, at 1500 Vine St for contributions to Television and at 6159 Hollywood Blvd for Motion Pictures.