The classic 1942 movie "Casablanca'' has over the years become a treasured part of American culture for many reasons but mostly because of its war time plot, and the timeless performances by Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and others. However, what has also become classic was one particular line and even a person from the film – where Tyler native and East Texas Notable Dooley Wilson is told to “Play it again, Sam.” However, while Wilson has perhaps become best known for this scene and this role, there were some ironies involved. First the line was actually just, “Play it, Sam” and also, while Wilson simply fingered the keyboard he couldn’t play the instrument and the music actually came from an off screen pianist. And second and probably more important, though Wilson was a talented singer and drummer and had led his own bands, he was also an experienced and talented stage actor with numerous credits. Yet because of standard movie studio policy, because he was an African American, Wilson was limited to such roles as “Sam”- and as train porters.
We’ve recently been looking at East Texas Notables – native Texans whose accomplishments made them well known and successful in American life and culture, and this certainly describes Dooley Wilson.
Born in 1886, in Tyler, Arthur Wilson – he got the nickname from his performance as an Irish singer known as "Mr. Dooley" – was the youngest of five children. His father died while he was still young and at age seven he helped support the family by singing in church, then a year later he was making $18 a week singing and playing in tent shows. By 1908 he had joined a prestigious Chicago Black theater company, appearing with them and other such troupes over the next few years in New York and even in Europe. He also formed his own musical group, touring widely in the 1920s.
Wilson returned to the stage in the 1930s appearing in plays with various companies, including some sponsored by the Federal government that were designed to support the arts during the Depression. Then his breakthrough role came when he appeared on Broadway with a major role in “Cabin in the Sky” – a Black musical that was soon bound for Hollywood. However, as often happened with many performers – no matter their race – the studio did not cast Wilson in his stage role but used another better known Black actor. Still, he had a movie contract and he did appear on screen in other roles, but usually in minor or even stereotypical servile roles.
Then in 1942 Warner Brothers "borrowed" him from Paramount to appear in "Casablanca" where he played "Sam," the singer/pianist at Rick's nightclub and to perform "As Time Goes By.” However the song wasn’t heard just once, but played several times. In fact it was also an important part of the movie’s structure. In fact, the late Bob Bowman, writing in his East Texas column several years ago on Wilson, called the number "a continuing musical and emotional motif throughout the film."
Critics were also kind and one source cited the Hollywood press as describing Wilson's performance as creating "something joyous." Incidentally the off screen pianist was Elliott Carpenter and he and Wilson became lifelong friends – the possible link being that they were the only black performers on the set. According to Bowman, during the scene Carpenter was placed to the side where Wilson could see him and imitate his keyboard movement.
Yet though there were few all-black musical films at the time, those that were produced, like “Cabin in the Sky” often had a loyal following among Black audiences in many segregated theaters of the time. So since a successful film would naturally pave the way for another there followed “Stormy Weather” where Wilson had a major role. Actually this was the second film with an all Black cast after "Cabin in the Sky." Then over the next few years Wilson returned to Broadway where he worked steadily, and also performed later on television. At one time he was on the executive board of the Negro Actors Guild of America.
Wilson died in 1953 of natural causes, having appeared on stage just a few years before.
In 2017 Wilson was honored in Tyler, a talented, gifted and actor/musician who often because of racial restrictions at the time appeared in roles beneath his talent, yet who still served his craft.