Play it, Sam
(April 3, 1886 – May 30, 1953) was an American actor and singer. who is best remembered as the piano-player and singer “Sam” who sings “As Time Goes By” at the request of Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) in the 1942 film, Casablanca– the Sam in the famously misremembered line “Play it again, Sam” – a phrase which was never actually spoken in the film.
Wilson, an African-American, was a drummer and singer who led his own band in the 1920s, touring nightclubs in London and Paris. In the 1930s he took up acting for good, playing supporting roles onstage on Broadway and in a series of modest films. His role inCasablanca was by far his most famous, but his other films included My Favorite Blonde(1942, with Bob Hope), Stormy Weather (1943, with Lena Horne and the Nicholas Brothers), and the 1951 western Passage West.
Wilson was born in Tyler, Texas, and broke into show business at the age of 12, playing in a vaudeville minstrel show. He sang and played the drums in black clubs in the Tyler area before he moved to Chicago. He received the nickname “Dooley” while working in the Pekin Theatre in Chicago, circa 1908, because of his then-signature Irish song “Mr. Dooley,” which he performed in whiteface. He worked in black theatre in Chicago and New York for most of the period from 1908 to the 1930s, although in the 1920s he toured Europe as a drummer and singer in his own band, the Red Devils.
From the 1930s to the 1950s Wilson worked in motion pictures and Broadway, including with Orson Welles and John Houseman at theFederal Theatre. His breakthrough Broadway appearance came in the role of Little Joe in the musical Cabin in the Sky (1940–1941). This led to his signing with the Paramount studio in Hollywood. By the time Paramount lent him to Warner Bros. for his role as Sam in Casablanca, he had already appeared in over 20 films. He later appeared in the 1943 film Stormy Weather, an all-black musical, as the third part of a love-triangle involving Lena Horne and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
Back in New York, Wilson played Pompey, an escaped slave, in the musical Bloomer Girl (1946–1948). His performance of the song “The Eagle and Me” in this show was selected by Dwight Blocker Bowers for inclusion in a Smithsonian recordings compilation,American Musical Theatre. Later, he played the role of Bill Jackson on the television situation comedy Beulah during its final 1952–1953 season.
Dooley, who was on the board of the Negro Actors Guild of America, died on May 30, 1953, shortly after he retired from show business. He is buried at the Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles.
For his role as “Sam” in Casablanca, Wilson was paid $350 a week for seven weeks, although other reports say that he was paid $500 a week.
Sam is a singer and pianist employed by nightclub owner Rick (Humphrey Bogart). The Herman Hupfeld song “As Time Goes By” appears as a continuing musical and emotional motif throughout the film. Rick and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) regard it as “their song” and associate it with the days of their love affair in Paris. The day Rick and Ilsa and Sam are to leave Paris together, just as the invading Germans arrive, Ilsa abruptly disappears, leaving only a note for Rick that she loves him but can never see him again. In his heartbreak, Rick forbids the song to be played in his club. When Ilsa appears in his nightclub, she requests it (“Play it, Sam”), and Sam acquiesces. Dooley Wilson gives a genial and warm rendition of the song. The performance is remembered for itself, as well as for its cinematic associations. The song makes Rick aware of Ilsa’s presence and her continuing feelings for him. According to Aljean Harmetz, Variety singled him out for the effectiveness of the song, and the Hollywood Reporter said he created “something joyous”.
In a later scene, Rick sits in a darkened nightclub, alone except for Sam, drinking heavily and torturing himself by insisting that Sam repeatedly play the song, saying “You played it for her, you can play it for me… If she can stand it, I can! Play it!”. The phrase “Play it again, Sam”, commonly believed to be a quote from the film, is never used.
Wilson was a singer and drummer, but not a pianist. Sam’s piano playing in the film was performed by Elliot Carpenter, who was placed where Wilson could see and imitate his hand movements. The only black people on the Casablanca set, Wilson and Carpenter became and remained friends.
Wilson’s version of “As Times Goes By” reached #15 in the UK Singles Chart in December 1977.