Wilson, Arthur [Dooley] (1894–1953)

By: Peggy Hardman

Type: Biography

Published: January 1, 1996

Updated: October 23, 2013

Dooley Wilson, actor and musician, was born Arthur Wilson in Tyler, Texas, on April 3, 1886. Some sources list 1894 as the year of his birth, but Wilson's gravestone gives 1886. Wilson's career spanned more than forty years. He began at age twelve with performances in vaudeville as a minstrel player. Around 1908 he performed in black theater in Chicago and New York. It was during this time that he got his nickname, "Dooley," as a performer in Pekin Theatre in Chicago. The name was taken from "Mr. Dooley," Wilson's signature song at the time. During the 1920s he led his own band—the Red Devils—in which he performed as a singing drummer on a nightclub tour of Paris and London. He returned to the United States in 1930 and gave up his drums for an acting career. He performed with Orson Welles and John Houseman in Federal Theater productions and then landed a Broadway role in the musical Cabin in the Sky.

Wilson made his film debut in 1939. Although his roles were primarily supporting ones, he made film history as Sam, the pianist–singer in Casablanca who performs "As Time Goes By." Director Hal Wallis wanted a woman for the role but chose Wilson instead, although Wilson "couldn't...play piano." The director allowed Wilson to sing, but the piano playing was dubbed. Wilson was under contract to Paramount and on loan to MGM. His film credits include Keep Punching (1939); My Favorite Blonde, Night in New Orleans, Take a Letter Darling, Cairo, and Casablanca (1942); Two Tickets to London, Stormy Weather, and Higher and Higher (1943); Seven Days Ashore (1944); Triple Threat and Racing Luck (1948); Free for All and Come to the Stable (1949); and Passage West (1951).

In 1945 Wilson had a prominent role in the New York musical Bloomer Girl. He also acted in Beulah, one of the first television series starring black actors, in 1951. He was on the board of directors of the Negro Actors Guild of America. He died in Los Angeles on May 30, 1953, shortly after his retirement, and was buried in Angelus Rosedale Cemetery. He was survived by his wife, Estelle.

Donald Bogle, Blacks in American Film and Television: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland, 1988). Thomas Cripps, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900–1942 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977). Otto Friedrich, City of Nets (New York: Harper and Row, 1986). Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia (New York: Crowell, 1979). Peter Noble, The Negro in Films (London: Skelton Robinson, 1948). David Ragan, Who's Who in Hollywood, 1900–1976 (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1976).

  • Music
  • Stage and Film
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
Time Periods:
  • World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Peggy Hardman, “Wilson, Arthur [Dooley],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 10, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/wilson-arthur-dooley.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1996
October 23, 2013

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: