"'Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By.'" With those words from Ingrid Bergman, Dooley Wilson launched into the song that moviegoers everywhere remembered from the Warner Bros. classic "Casablanca" (1942). While Wilson's loyal piano player only appeared in a few scenes, the actor brought considerable personality to his role and in a film filled with rich characters and vivid actors, he managed to leave a lasting impression. The African-American drummer and singer began his career in minstrel shows and toured overseas with his own band before returning to American and launching into an acting career. Various forays on the stage and in a movie designed for the African-American theater circuit did not result in any significant notoriety coming his way until he was added to the cast of the Broadway success "Cabin in the Sky" (1940-41), where his performance as "Little Joe" led to a movie contract. However, most of his parts were of the small and stereotypical variety endured by most black performers until "Casablanca" (1942) earned him a place in film history. Wilson had more successes here and there, notably the lavish musical fantasy extravaganza "Stormy Weather" (1943) and the Broadway hit "Bloomer Girl" (1944-46), but his performance as Sam and his rendition of "As Time Goes By" became as indelibly linked to that beloved feature as "Here's looking at you, kid" and "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
Dooley Wilson was born Arthur Wilson on April 3, 1886 in Tyler, TX, and was performing on stage by the age of 12. Like a number of African-American entertainers of the time, minstrel shows were his training ground and he eventually earned the nickname "Dooley," thanks to a whiteface performance as an Irishman where he sang the song "Mr. Dooley." After a few years in various Chicago and New York venues, Wilson joined James Reese Europe's 365th Infantry Hell Fighters Band, a gig that ended when Reese was fatally stabbed by one his drummers. In 1919, he formed his own band called The Red Devils and began a lengthy overseas tour that touched down in a number of major cities, including Paris and London. Wilson returned to America around 1930 and appeared in productions put on by the Federal Theater and the Lafayette Players before making his Broadway debut in the comedy "Conjur Man Dies" (1936). He also notched his first feature film credit in the black cast production "Keep Punching" (1939), but it was Wilson's turn as "Little Joe" in the Broadway smash "Cabin in the Sky" (1940-41) that finally earned him attention from Hollywood.
The musical/fantasy brought about a contract offer from Paramount Pictures, which quickly put Wilson in the Bob Hope vehicle "My Favorite Blonde" (1942), "Take a Letter, Darling" (1942), and "Night in New Orleans" (1942). He was then loaned out to MGM for the Jeanette McDonald musical comedy "Cairo" (1942). Wilson's next movie was also set in an exotic locale, but turned out to be far more notable for him and a better grade of part than he had been offered up to that time. Adapted from the play "Everybody Comes to Rick's" (1940), "Casablanca" (1942) started production as just another feature in the assembly line of movies issued by Warner Bros., but ended up being far more, thanks to a superb collection of craftsmen behind the scenes, a wonderful script and an ideal cast. Wilson played Sam, the loyal singer and piano player at a club owned by American ex-pat Rick (Humphrey Bogart). While Sam was a secondary character, the friendship between the two men was very genuine and quite progressive for the time, with Sam very much an equal and a valued compatriot in Rick's eyes. Wilson was actually not the studio's first choice for the part and for a time, the studio had thought about making Sam a woman. African-American actor Clarence Muse, whose career dated back to the silent era and had appeared regularly in both big studio and independent features, seemed a lock, but the company eventually decided to borrow Wilson from Paramount for $700 a week, making him the most costly supporting player on the project. One hitch was that Wilson did not know how to play piano, so he mimed the action while studio musician Elliot Carpenter matched him.
Nonetheless, Wilson was very appealing in the role and though only onscreen for a few minutes, Sam became one of the film's most valuable components (not long after the initial release, Wilson received as many as 5,000 fan letters a week). In spite of his wonderful voice, filled with authenticity and character, Warners considered having Wilson's singing replaced by another performer. Thankfully that plan was eventually scrapped, in light of how effective Wilson's rendition of the Herman Hupfeld song "As Time Goes By" was and how important it was to the film's power. The song initially gained some minor notoriety upon its use in the 1931 Broadway play "Everybody's Welcome," but after being included in "Casablanca," it became much more prominent in the culture and was soon regarded as a classic. Ironically, the line most associated with Wilson's role in the film - "Play It Again, Sam" - was never actually spoken, a myth perpetuated by Woody Allen's affectionate 1969 Broadway play and 1972 motion picture of that name.
Although "Casablanca" was a triumph for everyone involved, it ultimately did not have a major impact on Wilson's career, thanks to the limited scope of parts being offered to African-American performers in mainstream features. A happy exception was "Stormy Weather" (1943), 20th Century Fox's all-black musical fantasy extravaganza, which featured Wilson alongside such great talents as Lena Horne, Cab Calloway and Bill Robinson. Wilson also returned to Broadway for the hit musical comedy "Bloomer Girl" (1944-46), but roles in fare like "Two Tickets to London" (1943), "Higher and Higher" (1943) and "Seven Days Ashore" (1944) offered comparatively little for him. Unfortunately, Wilson was not enlisted to appear in MGM's movie version of "Cabin in the Sky" (1943), with his part instead played by Jack Benny regular Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. By that point in his career, he was also an executive board member of the Negro Actors Guild, which strove to eliminate stereotyping in movies. Sadly, Wilson still found himself subject to the prejudices of the day when he and some friends were denied entry to a Santa Monica cafe in 1948. Work did still continue to come with parts in minor films like "Racing Luck" (1948), "Come to the Stable" (1949), and "Free for All" (1949), along with uncredited appearances in "Triple Threat" (1948), Tell it to the Judge" (1949), and the Humphrey Bogart picture "Knock on Any Door" (1949), ironically, as a piano player. Wilson had what turned out to be his final film role as a convict in the frontier adventure "Passage West" (1951), and also appeared in two episodes of the sitcom "Beulah" (ABC, 1950-53). He died of natural causes on May 30, 1953 at age 67.
By John Charles
Cast (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Returned to US
Film acting debut in "Cabin in the Sky"