Arthur Wilson was born in Tyler, Smith County, Texas. There is some question about his actual date of birth, but it is often shown as being April 3, 1886 with his mother’s maiden name being Lamkin and his father’s name being Wilson. In some accounts he is shown as being younger, but in the 1900 federal census, he is listed as being fifteen, living south of downtown Tyler with his mother Manda Wilson and brother George. Accounts of his early life often state that by age twelve, Arthur was performing in minstrel shows and that his nickname was adopted in the 1920s from his performances singing an Irish tune “Mr. Dooley.”
Wilson is known to have widely performed on Broadway and in other venues before beginning to be cast in feature films in the late 1930s. He is likely best known for his depiction of the character Sam in the 1942 film “Casablanca” in which he sings the familiar “As Time Goes By” in Rick’s Cafe Americain, run by the character played by Humphrey Bogart.
The story of “Casablanca” itself is interesting. According to Aljean Harmetz’s book “Round Up The Usual Suspects: The Making of ‘Casablanca'” the Warner Brothers film was originally to have starred Ronald Reagan, Ann Sheridan and Dennis Morgan. Reagan was unavailable, having been scheduled to join the Army. At the time, actors were under contract to various studios but to fill their casts, studios would negotiate with each other to allow actors to participate in the projects of their competitors. The actors would be paid by the studio with which they had signed and that studio would be compensated by the studio that used the actor. By the time the “Casablanca” actors had been signed, the lead roles were to to be performed by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman with a wonderful supporting cast that included Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Wilson and many others. The film was also to refer to the plight of refugees from World War II countries, and according to all sources, many extras in the film were indeed actual refugees. Concerning Wilson, according to the Harmetz book, producer Hal Wallis was not entirely happy with Wilson at one point, having some unknown objection. However, the casting of Wilson as Sam turned out to be an inspired choice, since Wilson’s acting (however brief) and his singing became one of the more memorable parts of the film.
By the time he was cast as Sam, Wilson was already a well known musician. Though he was portrayed in the film as a singer and keyboard player, he had actually been a vocalist and drummer in various other venues, and was not well versed on piano. In “Casablanca” (his sixth film) the scenes were reportedly filmed with Wilson singing as he copied the hand movements of an offstage pianist, Elliot Carpenter. Carpenter is said to have been the only other African American in the company. He and Wilson became friends, along with their wives. Studio musician Jean Vincent Plummer dubbed Wilson’s keyboard part for the film.
In “Casablanca,” Wilson performs at least six songs, or portions of them, including what became the signature song for the film, “As Time Goes By,” composed by Herman Hupfield. Portions of the melody are also woven into the Max Steiner soundtrack. “As Time Goes By” had been written by Hupfield for a 1931 musical named “Everybody’s Welcome.” Wilson was unable to make a commercial recording of it after the film’s release due to a musician’s strike, and an early version was released using a 1931 recording of Rudy Vallee which became a number one hit.
Wilson went on to appear in at least a dozen more films, including one more with Bogart named “Knock on Any Door” released by Columbia Pictures. He was initially uncredited, but in it he again plays a musician in a club or bar in a wide shot with the other actors being positioned on either side of a wide shot to focus on Wilson singing and playing the piano.
Wilson had a long and successful career including many appearances in Harlem venues in Manhattan, New York. He was highly billed alongside noted entertainers such as Ethyl Waters in such works as “Cabin In the Sky.” Wilson was always appreciative of the support he received from theatrical audiences and was quoted as saying that without approval from them, “I would have never made the grade.”
Wilson died of natural causes in 1953 and was survived by his wife, the former Estelle Froman Williams. Wilson is buried at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.
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