The Death of George Raft (November 25, 1980)



Scenes from Scarface and Bolero, featuring actor George Raft, flash across the screen while ABC News reporter Tom Shell recounts Raft’s lists of achievements and provides viewers with a short biography.
Reporter: Shell, Tom (ABC News)

George Raft (born George Ranft; September 26, 1901[1][2][3] – November 24, 1980) was an American film actor and dancer identified with portrayals of gangsters in crime melodramas of the 1930s and 1940s. A stylish leading man in dozens of movies, Raft is remembered for his gangster roles in Quick Millions (1931) with Spencer Tracy, Scarface (1932) with Paul Muni, Each Dawn I Die (1939) with James Cagney, Invisible Stripes (1939) with Humphrey Bogart, Billy Wilder’s comedy Some Like It Hot (1959) with Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon, and as a dancer in Bolero (1934) with Carole Lombard and a truck driver in They Drive by Night (1940) with Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino and Bogart.[citation needed]

Raft said he never regarded himself as an actor. “I wanted to be me,” he said.[4]

George Raft was born in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, to a family of German descent,[5] the son of Eva (née Glockner), a German immigrant, and Conrad Ranft, who was born in Massachusetts to German immigrant parents.[6] His parents were married on November 17, 1895 in Manhattan. Raft’s older sister Eva, known as Katie, was born on April 18, 1896. Raft’s grandfather had emigrated from Germany and worked on merry-go-rounds and prospected for gold. His father worked in carnivals before settling in New York.[7]

Most obituaries cited Raft’s year of birth as 1895, which he stated was correct when he appeared on The Mike Douglas Show seven months prior to his death.[8] However, Raft is recorded in the New York City Birth Index as having been born on September 26, 1901 in Manhattan as “George Rauft” (although “Rauft” is likely a mistranscription of “Ranft”).[9] The 1900 census for New York City lists his sister Katie as his parents’ only child, with two children born and only one living.[10] In the 1910 census, he is listed as eight years old.[6][11]

Raft grew up on 41st Street and worked as an errand boy and a fishwrapper after school. His parents sent him to live at his grandparents’ house on 164th Street. He left school at the age of 12, and left home at 13. He worked as an apprentice electrician for a year, then boxed professionally for two years beginning at the age of 15. As Dutch Rauft, he fought 14 bouts, with nine victories, three defeats and two draws.[12][13] Another account says that Raft fought 25 bouts and was knocked out seven times.[14]

Raft played minor-league baseball, reportedly with Springfield of the Eastern League, as a utility outfielder with pitching aspirations. However, his batting was poor and he was dropped.[15][16][17]

“I was just trying to find something that I liked that would make me a living,” said Raft later. “I saw guys fighting, so I fought. I saw guys playing ball, so I played ball. Then I saw guys dancing… and getting paid for it!”[12]

Career as a dancer[edit source]
Raft’s mother taught him how to dance, and he danced at outdoor amusement parks and carnivals with his parents.[18] Following his baseball career, he began working as a taxi dancer in the poorer sections of New York. At first he struggled financially, but then he won a Charleston competition and was launched professionally.

Raft started performing exhibition dances in the afternoon at Healy’s, Murray’s, Rectors and Churchills in New York.[19] He then started working in New York City nightclubs, often in the same venues as did Rudolph Valentino before Valentino became a film actor.[20] Raft had a notable collaboration with Elsie Pilcer.[21] A May 1924 review in Variety called him “gifted.”[22]

“I could have been the first X-rated dancer,” he said later. “I was very erotic. I used to caress myself as I danced. I never felt I was a great dancer. I was more of a stylist, unique. I was never a Fred Astaire or a Gene Kelly, but I was sensuous.”[23]

Raft went on tour as a dancer and helped popularize the tango in Paris, Vienna, Rome, London and New York.[12] He had a great success as a dancer in London in 1926, and the Duke of Windsor was “an ardent fan and supporter.”[24] Fred Astaire, in his autobiography Steps in Time (1959), wrote that Raft was a lightning-fast dancer and did “the fastest Charleston I ever saw.”[25] A September 1926 edition of Variety spoke of Raft’s reputation as “the best Charleston dancer in New York.”[26]

During this time, Raft befriended a number of gangsters, including Enoch Johnson and Larry Fay, and he would occasionally drive for Owney Madden.[27] A boyhood friend of gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, and later a “wheel man” for the mob, Raft acknowledged having narrowly avoided a life of crime.[28]

Broadway[edit source]
Raft became part of the stage act of flamboyant speakeasy and nightclub hostess Texas Guinan at the 300 Club, and he also produced some of her shows.[13]

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