Dooley Wilson: As Times Goes By

A celebration this morning of Arthur “Dooley” Wilson (1886-1953). Today people know him pretty exclusively for his pivotal role as “Sam” in Casablanca (1942). But there’s much more to his life and career than that!

Born in Tyler, East Texas, Wilson was already working professionally as a singer at age seven (the family needed the income after his father died.) From singing in churches he graduated to tent shows and black vaudeville. He’d already been in the business for a decade when he began performing at the pathbreaking Pekin Theatre in Chicago in 1908. It was around this time that he got his professional nickname, due to the fact that he performed a comical Irish character and sang a song called “Mr. Dooley”. In the mid-teens he worked with Charles Gilpin’s and Anita Bush’s theatre companies in Harlem.

In addition to singing and acting, Wilson also played the drums. In that capacity he played with James Reese Europe during World War One, and then later started his own band The Red Devils, which toured Europe throughout the Jazz Age. Interestingly, despite the impression he creates in Casablanca he did not actually play piano — just the drums.

During the Depression he worked with the Federal Theatre Project under the direction of John Houseman. He had the lead in The Conjur’ Man Dies (1936) on Broadway with the project (go here for an original artwork my wife made in homage to the novel upon which the play was based). With the project he was also in O’Neill’s The Long Voyage Home (1937) and Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion (1938). After The Strangler Fig (1940) he was in the original stage production of Cabin in the Sky (1940-41) in the role that went to Eddie “Rochester” Anderson in the film version. The original production of Bloomer Girl (1944-46) was his last Broadway show.

Meanwhile, he’d also broken into movies. His first was the race picture Keep Punching (1939). In total he amassed 20 screen credits, including My Favorite Blonde (1942) with Bob Hope, Stormy Weather (1943), and two episodes of Beulah. His last role was in the western Passage West (1951).

To learn more about vaudeville please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.