Last week we featured pianist/singer Hadda Brooks, highlighting her appearance in the film “In a Lonely Place,” performing “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You.” As a follow-up, we offer pianist/vocalist Dooley Wilson, who like Ms. Brooks, is most remembered for his cameos in “Casablanca” and his rendition of “As Time Goes By,” the movie’s theme song.
Dooley, in fact, was born Arthur Wilson on April 3, 1886 in Tyler, Texas, the nation’s rose capital. He was the youngest of five children and by the time he was seven, the year of his father’s death, he began performing in churches around Tyler. A year later he was earning $18 a week, singing and playing for tent shows.
In 1908, while performing the song “Mr. Dooley” and impersonating in whiteface an Irish singer, he was forever dubbed Dooley. More importantly, this was a period when he was a member of the Pekin Theatre,
America’s first legitimate Black theater. Six years later Dooley was in New York City and working with Anita Bush and Charles Gilpin at the legendary Lafayette Theater. He was also the drummer in James Reese Europe’s band and toured with his own group, The Red Devils, after World War I and throughout the ’20s.
During the Great Depression, Dooley performed in plays produced by the Federal Theater Project under the direction of John Houseman. He starred in “Conjur’ Man Dies” in 1936. Four years later he was on Broadway as Little Joe in the musical “Cabin in the Sky.” Although it was a breakout performance and earned him a contract with Paramount, he didn’t get that role when the musical was adapted to film. Eddie
“Rochester” Anderson got the role and he shared top billing with Ethel Waters and Lena Horne. Meanwhile, Dooley was relegated to playing porters and servants.
But he had an alternative to Hollywood when he returned to the theater and in 1938 portrayed Androcles in “Androcles and the Lion.” In 1942, he got the role that made him famous in “Casablanca,” and placed him inseparably to Humphrey Bogart’s command to “play it, once, Sam,” though it’s often misquoted as “Play it again, Sam.” Another unknown fact is that Dooley’s piano playing was dubbed by others. It was his voice as the singer. A year later he shared the screen with Lena Horne and the Nicolas Brothers in “Stormy Weather.” You can see him in a scene or two as the best friend to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
There was another dubbed piano role in “Knock on Any Door” in 1949, and several other uncredited roles.
He was once more back on stage in the mid-1940s, including a role in the Broadway musical “Bloomer Girl” where his performance of “The Eagle and Me” is among those selected by the Smithsonian recordings compilation. He also portrayed Bill Jackson on the television situation comedy, “Beulah,” during the 1951-’52 season. Beyond the stage and screen, Dooley was active in the Negro Actors Guild of America on the executive board.
Dooley died May 30, 1953, at his home in Los Angeles. Two years earlier he became ill while performing on stage in New York in “Harvey.” He is buried at the Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles. He was married to Estelle (Williams) Wilson. In 2017, a marker was dedicated to honor him in his hometown Tyler where he was born.