Lacking prior performance experience Sidney was not an obvious fit for the theater but he had great determination to change the course of his life for better. To offset the cost of acting lessons, Sidney worked as a janitor at the American Negro Theater and soon found himself as the understudy to fellow icon-in-the-making Harry Belafonte. Filling in for Mr. Belafonte one evening, Sidney was discovered and cast in the 1946 Broadway production of the classic Greek play, Lysistrata.
In 1950, Sidney made his film debut in No Way Out, playing a doctor called on to treat two racist White robbery suspects. The role would earn the actor high praise and kick off a decade memorable film roles, including Cry, the Beloved Country, Blackboard Jungle, Porgy and Bess, and The Defiant Ones. This 1958 film co-starred Tony Curtis, and would score Sidney his first Academy Award nomination.
Poitier’s big-screen debut came as Dr Luther Brooks, a recently qualified practitioner and the first African American doctor at a county hospital. When injured sibling hoodlums Johnny and Ray Biddle (Dick Paxton and Richard Widmark) are placed under Brooks’ care, the doctor is subjected to vile racist abuse by Ray. Johnny’s death while undergoing treatment places Brooks and his family in danger as Ray swears revenge, claiming Brooks intentionally killed his brother. So committed was Widmark’s performance as a racist thug that Poitier’s on-screen anger is palpably genuine. Though only billed fourth on the cast list, the young but assured Poitier is clearly co-starring opposite the wild-eyed Widmark. (BFI).