Working in the U.S. again during the Great Depression, Wilson starred in Conjur’ Man Dies (1936) and other plays for the Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Theatre Unit, then under the direction of John Houseman. His breakthrough role came in 1940, with his portrayal of Little Joe in the Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky. This won him a contract with Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. He found himself playing Pullman porters while his stage role in the MGM film adaptation of Cabin in the Sky was played by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson.
Cabin in the Sky
Higher and Higher
In May 1942, Warner Bros. was casting its production of Casablanca and borrowed Wilson from Paramount Pictures for seven weeks at $500 a week. Per the studio custom of the day, Wilson received his contract salary, $350 per week, and Paramount kept the balance.
Wilson was cast in the role of Sam, a singer, and pianist employed by nightclub owner Rick (Humphrey Bogart). Wilson performs the Herman Hupfeld song “As Time Goes By“, a continuing musical and emotional motif throughout the film. According to Aljean Harmetz, Variety singled out Wilson for the effectiveness of the song, and The Hollywood Reporter said he created “something joyous”. The phrase “Play it again, Sam“, commonly believed to be a quote from the film, is never heard in Casablanca. The line was, “Play it, once, Sam.” In the film, Wilson as Sam performs several other songs for the cafe audience: “It Had To Be You“, “Shine“, “Knock on Wood“, “Avalon” and “Parlez-moi d’amour“.