Icons / September 2018

George Raft: Hollywood's Forgotten Star

George Raft was better known for making other actors’ careers a success. Yet the fact he had a Hollywood life at all was, in Raft’s eyes, a tale of triumph over circumstance…

Raft walking from Vendome Cafe in Hollywood, 1933. Photograph by Getty Images.

George Raft didn’t want to give the name. Interviewed in 1980, his final television appearance, the then 85-year-old actor, dressed stylishly in a charcoal peak-lapel suit over a black polo neck, was asked about his habit of giving money to those struggling to break into his fickle industry. The interviewer pushes him and he declines. He pushes again; again, Raft declines. The interviewer jokingly lets slip that the recipient in question went on to become the biggest name in television. Raft smiles. Still he won’t name her. Raft is, the interviewer says, too much of a gentleman. The interviewer takes another approach. How about all the famous women he’d dated? Would he name them? Raft smiles. “You can name them,” he says.

Other men of his era — James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper — entered the annals of cool. But the much-less-famous Raft embodied it. They played tough; he was tough. They played gentlemen; Raft was one. “I respect women,” Raft once noted in another interview. “In one movie I was asked to hit Marlene Dietrich. I said I didn’t want to. That’s not something I would ever do in real life. And, of course, they said, ‘Well, you must’. Marlene said, ‘You have to hit me’. And I said no. So [filming was held up] for a couple of days. And I finally did hit her.” Years after the event, Raft was still not happy with it.

He had separated from his first wife a few years into their marriage, but supported her until her death some 50 years later. It was worth noting that he was the only man on the chat show who stood up when a woman came onto the stage. Yet gentlemanliness, apparently, got you only so far. Why, compared to his peers, is Raft so little known? “Well, I was a pretty quick study — but then I didn’t have too many lines,” he said. Raft made self-effacement an art form: he never saw himself on screen and, he claimed, never had any desire to. “I always played the guy with the gun, or something like that. I did 105 pictures and I was killed 85 times. How unlucky can you go, right? I did pretty well with the girls. But in the pictures, always got killed. I worked with so many Academy Award winners. They always won the award, not me. I was nominated once. I ran fourth.”

Raft, it sometimes seemed, made other men’s careers. Poor professional choices — at least in hindsight — were an issue: mistrust of novice directors, a belief in his own agent’s press releases and a reluctance to play un-redeeming anti-heroes all influenced his decisions. He turned down the lead in High Sierra, creating an opening that would help Bogart start his climb out of the doldrums. He turned down the lead in The Maltese Falcon for good reasons, but all the same he passed on what is widely considered the best detective movie of all time. Bogart took that part, too.

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Josh Sims

Josh Sims is a writer on menswear, design and much else for the likes of Wallpaper, CNN, Robb Report and The Times. He's the author of several books on menswear, the latest 'The Details', published by Laurence King. He lives in London, has two small children and is permanently exhausted.