For decades, movies have had a special place in American culture. Unforgettable characters and captivating stories have helped define America’s idea of itself. One of the most famous scenes of all time became a legendary moment because of one Texas actor. The actor was veteran performer Dooley Wilson, and the movie was Casablanca.
Born Arthur Wilson in Tyler in April 1886, he had little formal education; but he had a great deal of musical and artistic talent that he put to good use at a young age. By the mid-1890s, he was already working as a singer and stage performer.
He toured across the country as a young man, eventually picking up the nickname “Dooley” after a popular song he performed. By 1908, he picked up regular work as part of African-American acting troupes at theaters in Chicago and New York. In the 1920s, with the Jazz Age in full swing, Wilson put together a band with himself as drummer and toured all across Europe. By the 1930s, he settled into a serious career as a stage actor, working with legendary director Orson Welles in a string of plays with the Federal Theater Project.
Wilson’s acclaimed work with Broadway plays earned him a movie contract by 1940. He had already appeared in a low-budget boxing film, Keep Punching, in 1939. But a studio contract opened up many new opportunities for Wilson. In 1942, at the age of 56, Wilson found his big break as an actor and appeared in five movies that year, including the comedy My Favorite Blonde with Bob Hope.
Casablanca became one of the most popular movies of 1942. Wilson played Sam, the piano-playing, charismatic, and loyal friend to the world-weary nightclub owner Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart.
The film itself was set against the backdrop of the early years of World War II, but the universal theme that attracted audiences was that of lost love. In the film, Bogart’s character Rick had fallen in love with the beautiful Ilsa, played by Ingrid Bergman, as the Nazis invaded France. Bergman’s character believed her husband had been killed in a Nazi concentration camp, stories of which were just starting to appear in American media. Rick and Ilsa planned to leave Paris just ahead of the German army when Ilsa learned that her husband was still alive and left Rick to find him. Wilson’s character of Sam had seen the relationship grow and watched its end crush his old friend.
Casablanca, co-written by Howard Koch and Philip and Julius Epstein, also contained one of the most famous and misquoted scenes in movie history. In particular, Bogart never said, “Play it again, Sam.”
In reality, the exchange began in a scene in the empty bar late at night. Sam saw that his old friend was troubled and half-drunk over Ilsa’s sudden return and decided to stay with him. Rick slammed his fist onto the table while Sam played the piano. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Rick stopped and listened to Sam playing the piano for a moment. “What’s that you’re playing?”
“Oh, it’s just a little something of my own.”
“Well, stop it. You know what I want to hear.”
“No, I don’t.”
“You played it for her, you can play it for me.”
“Well, I don’t think I can remember…”
“If she can stand it, I can. Play it!”
Wilson’s performance of “As Time Goes By,” used to a very emotional effect to tie together music and memory, is still widely used in movies. However, while Wilson was a gifted singer and musician, he could not play piano professionally. The piano music was played offscreen by pianist Elliot Carpenter. The song itself was written by Herman Hupfeld for a Broadway musical in 1931. It was a modest hit, but Wilson’s rendition of it in Casablanca in 1942 catapulted it to new heights of popularity.
Critics praised Wilson’s performance. The film today is considered by movie fans to be one of the best ever made. Wilson was paid $350 per week for seven weeks of filming on the project, or about $5,563 in 2018 dollars, the highest-paid actor in the film after Bogart and Bergman.
Wilson also worked on the Board of Directors of the Negro Actors Guild of America, working to end racial discrimination in Hollywood and helping other African-American actors have a chance at the same opportunities that he had. He stayed active in the years after Casablanca, appearing in a dozen more movies and many other hit Broadway plays. In 1943, Wilson co-starred with Lena Horne in the musical Stormy Weather. He worked with Bogart again in the 1949 mystery Knock on Any Door, appearing briefly as a piano player.
He appeared in the early television sitcom Beulah as a guest star in 1952. His health was declining by this time, and he passed away at his home in Los Angeles in 1953 at the age of 67.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org