you talk to East Texas
movie buffs about their favorite all-time films, the one everyone
places near the top is Casablanca, a seventy-year-old love story
made in 1942 starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
But few know that an East Texan, Dooley Wilson, played a significant
role in the film--not necessarily as a part of the plot, but as
the piano player who sang “As Time Goes By,” the classic theme which
ranks among filmdom’s top movie songs.
An African-American, Wilson was born as Arthur Wilson on April 3,
1886, in Tyler.
He reportedly played in black clubs around Tyler
before moving to Chicago, where he earned his nickname in 1908,
the result of his signature Irish song, “Mr. Dooley” while playing
at the Pekin Theater. He performed the role in whiteface.
Because of his role in Casablanca, history has forever associated
Wilson with the piano. But Dooley never played one. He only sang
and sometimes used the drums. Dooley performed on Broadway in the
early forties and his breakthrough appearance came in the role of
Little Joe, a stereotypic lazy rascal in the musical, “Cabin in
the Sky.” He also played an escaped slave in “Bloomer Girl” and
his performance of the song, “The Eagle and Me,” was included in
a Smithsonian compilation of American theater songs.
While Casablanca established Dooley’s reputation on the silver screen,
it wasn’t his first film. He had already played in more than twenty
motion pictures when the Casablanca film came along. For his role,
he was paid $350 a week. By comparison, Sydney Greenstreet was paid
$3,750 a week.
you remember the film, Sam was a singer and pianist employed by
Rick (Humphrey Bogart). “As Time Goes By,” written by Herman Hupfield,
appears as a continuing musical and emotional motif throughout the
Dooley’s rendition of the song is remembered for itself, as well
as for its cinematic associations. About a year ago, a television
show ranked the movies’ top songs--and “As Time Goes By” was among
the top three, along with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Singing
in the Rain.”
Since Dooley couldn’t play the piano, his playing in the film was
actually done by Elliott Carpenter, who was placed on the set where
Wilson could see him and imitate his hand movements. The only black
people on the Casablanca set, Wilson and Carpenter remained lifelong
Dooley almost didn’t get the Casablanca role. Ella Fitzgerald, a
popular singer in the forties, was considered for the part and Dooley’s
Sam might have been Ella’s Molly.
Ironically, Humphrey Bogart’s role as saloon owner Rick was originally
supposed to be a young Ronald Reagan. George Raft, another popular
actor in the forties, was a second choice.
Dooley died on May 30, 1953, in Los Angeles. He was buried in Rosedale
Cemetery, a favorite resting place for politicians, notably former
mayors of Los Angeles.
Bowman's East Texas
July 24, 2005 Column, updated May 6, 2012
A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers