Arthur Dooley Wilson was a popular actor during his time best remembered for his hit song “As Time Goes By” in the 1942 film classic Casablanca.
Wilson was born in Tyler, Texas in 1886. He first broke into show business at the age of twelve, playing in a vaudeville minstrel show. He often performed in black clubs before leaving Tyler. He moved in 1913 to Manhattan, New York where he performed with James Reese Europe’s 369th U.S. Infantry “Hell Fighters.”
After Europe was killed by one of his own band members, Wilson decided to form his own band and tour abroad. Before returning to the United States, he played ragtime on the alto sax and by 1930 he was starting his acting career.
Initially, Wilson performed with Orson Welles and John Houseman in Federal Theater productions and went on to appear with the Lafayette Players. He eventually landed the role of Little Joe in the Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky. He later worked with the Peking Company in Chicago, Illinois and became one of the few African-American performers to perform in whiteface.
His first screen debut was in 1939 in Paramount Picture film, “Keep Punching” and subsequently appeared in many films as a chauffeur, porter, or waiter. While still under contract to Paramount, Wilson was loaned out to Warner Brothers for the memorable role of Sam in Casablanca, in which he portrays a pianist/singer who acts as a philosophical confidant to Humphrey Bogart. Wilson’s rendition of “As Time Goes By,” composed by Herman Hupfeld and originally performed on Broadway in the early 1930s, sold more than a quarter of a million copies within months after the premiere of Casablanca.
He later appeared as a flirtatious business manager in the musical tribute to James Reese Europe in Stormy Weather. In addition to appearing in a series of films throughout the 1940s and 1950s, he starred as Beulah’s boyfriend Bill Jackson in the television sitcom, Beulah (1953) opposite Ethel Waters and Louise Beavers. Beulah was his last major acting role before he retired from the screen and served as an executive board member of the Negro Actors Guild. Wilson died in 1953, in Los Angeles, California.