Raft was born on September 26, 1901 in Hell's Kitchen, New York City, the son of Eva (Glockner) and Conrad Ranft. His father was born in Massachusetts to German Jewish immigrant parents, and his mother was a German Jewish immigrant. His parents were married on November 17, 1895 in Manhattan (1900 census records give the year of marriage as 1896, and years married as four). His sister, Eva, known as "Katie," was born on April 18, 1896. Although Raft's birth year in obituaries has been reported as 1895, the 1900 Census for New York City lists his elder sister, Katie, as his parents' only child, with two children born and only one living.On the 1910 Census, he is listed as being eight years old, and his birth record can be found in the New York City birth index as being 1901. A boyhood friend of gangsterOwney Madden (and later a "wheel man" for the mob), Raft admitted narrowly avoiding a life of crime. Raft spoke German fluently, having learned the language from his parents.
As a young man Raft showed aptitude in dancing which, with his elegant fashion sense, enabled him to earn work as a dancer in New York City nightclubs, often in the same venues as Rudolph Valentino before Valentino became a movie actor. Raft became part of the stage act of flamboyant speakeasy hostess Texas Guinan, and his success led him to Broadway where he again worked as a dancer. He later made a semi-autobiographical film called Broadway (1942) about this period in which he plays himself. He also worked inLondon as a chorus boy in the early 1920s. Fred Astaire, in his autobiography Steps in Time (1959), says Raft was a lightning-fast dancer and did "the fastest Charleston I ever saw."
Vi Kearney, later a dancer in shows for Charles B. Cochran and André Charlot, was quoted as saying:
Oh yes, I knew him (George Raft). We were in a big show together. Sometimes, to eke out our miserable pay, we'd do a dance act after the show at a club and we'd have to walk back home because all the buses had stopped for the night by that time. He'd tell me how he was going to be a big star one day and once he said that when he'd made it how he'd make sure to arrange a Hollywood contract for me. I just laughed and said: 'Come on, Georgie, stop dreaming. We're both in the chorus and you know it.' [Did he arrange the contract?] Yes. But by that time I'd decided to marry... [Was he (Raft) ever your boyfriend?] How many times do I have to tell you ...chorus girls don't go out with chorus boys.
In 1929, Raft relocated to Hollywood and took small roles. In Taxi! (1932) with James Cagney and Loretta Young, Raft has a colorful unbilled dancing role as Cagney's competitor in a dance contest who wins only to be knocked down by Cagney's loonily pugnacious character. His big break came later that same year as the nickel-flipping second lead alongside Paul Muni's raging killer in Scarface (1932), and Raft's convincing portrayal led to speculation that Raft was a gangster. Due to his lifelong friendship with Owney Madden, Raft was a friend or acquaintance of several other crime figures, including Bugsy Siegel and Siegel's old friend Meyer Lansky. Raft and boxer-turned actor/comedian "Slapsie"Maxie Rosenbloom were lifelong friends as well - in fact, Raft was Maxie's mentor from childhood. When Gary Cooper's romantic escapades put him on one gangster's hit list, Raft reportedly interceded and persuaded the mobster to spare Cooper. Orson Welles explained to Peter Bogdanovich in their interview book This is Orson Welles that, as Raft's career accelerated, the actor was particularly an idol and role model for actual gangsters of the period in terms of dress and attitude.
He was one of the three most popular gangster actors of the 1930s, with James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson; Raft ranked far above Humphrey Bogart in fame and box office clout throughout the decade. When the studio refused to hire Texas Guinan, the performer upon whom one of the movie's characters was based, because of her age, Raft advocated for the casting of his friend, Mae West, in a supporting role in his first film as leading man, Night After Night (1932), which launched her movie career. Raft appeared the following year in Raoul Walsh's energetic period piece The Bowery as Steve Brodie, supposedly the first man to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge and survive, with Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper, Fay Wray and Pert Kelton. Raft memorably dances into the picture in his opening scene wearing a derby.
Some of his other movies include If I Had A Million (1932; an episodic ensemble film in which he plays a forger hiding from police, suddenly given a million dollars with no place to cash the check), Bolero (1934; in a rare role as a dancer rather than a gangster), Limehouse Blues (1934; with Anna May Wong), a brutal and fast-paced adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key (1935; remade in 1942 with Alan Ladd in Raft's role as a result of the success of the remake of Hammett's The Maltese Falcon), Souls at Sea (1937; with Gary Cooper), Spawn of the North (1938; with Raft garnering top billing over Henry Fonda and John Barrymore), two with Humphrey Bogart: Invisible Stripes (1939) and They Drive by Night (1940), with Bogart in supporting roles, Each Dawn I Die (1939; with James Cagney and Raft as convicts in prison), and Manpower (1941; with Edward G. Robinson and Marlene Dietrich). Although Raft received third billing in Manpower, he played the lead.
Raft married Grayce Mulrooney, several years his senior, in 1923, long before his stardom. The pair separated soon thereafter, but the devoutly Catholic Mulrooney refused to grant a divorce, Raft remained married to and supporting her until her death in 1970. A romantic figure in Hollywood, Raft had love affairs with Betty Grable, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West. He stated publicly that he wanted to marry Norma Shearer, with whom he had a long romance, but his wife's refusal to allow a divorce eventually caused Shearer to end the affair.
When James Cagney became president of the Screen Actors Guild in 1942 for a two-year term, he took a role in the Guild's fight against the Mafia, which had taken an active interest in the movie industry. Cagney's wife, Billie, once received a phone call telling her that Cagney was dead. Cagney alleged that, having failed to scare him and the Guild off, they sent a hit man to kill him by dropping a heavy light onto his head. On hearing about the rumor of the hit, George Raft made a call, and the hit was supposedly cancelled.
In 1967 he was denied entry into the United Kingdom (where he had been installed as Casino Director at a casino known as the "Colony Club") due to his underworld associations.
Raft died from leukemia at age of 79 in Los Angeles, California, on November 24, 1980. Two days earlier, Mae West had died and their bodies were at one point alongside each other in the hallway of the same mortuary at the same time. Raft was interred in Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles.