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In New York City, struggling actor Sam Lawson dashes from an unsuccessful audition to his job at O'Malley's restaurant. Fellow waiter Charley Gallagher chastises Sam for his frequent tardiness and warns him that he could be fired. As Sam prepares to take his station, he sees a woman he recognizes and remembers how he came to New York and lost Barbara, the woman who now waits to be served: In 1945, Sam bids farewell to his fiancée, Barbara Nilsson, as he prepares to leave Lansing for New York to become a stage actor. Although Barbara and their friends, Allan and Marjorie Burke, urge him to stay, Sam, a World War II veteran, asserts that he lost too many years of his life to the war and must follow his dreams. Promising to send for Barbara, Sam leaves and a year passes as he searches for meaningful acting work. One morning, Sam goes to a rundown, off-Broadway theater to meet ambitious director Maurice Novak, who has established The Actors' Rostrum. When Maury asks him if he has money to back the group, Sam leaves in disgust but Maury, impressed with Sam's demeanor, pursues him and becomes his roommate. Later, Sam is surprised to find Barbara waiting at his apartment one evening. Telling him that she could no longer live without him, Barbara informs him that she has already gotten a job in the city. Maury finds a new roommate and although Barbara and Sam are happily married, The Actors' Rostrum struggles to attract audiences. Maury accompanies Sam to a casting call being held by powerful producer Robert Kensington one day, and when Kensington refuses to cast Sam, Sam urges him to come to The Actors' Rostrum. Kensington agrees merely to get rid of Sam, then turns his attention to theatrical agent Shirley Drake, who has brought up-and-coming actor Eric Peters. Desperate to get Kensington to see him, Sam is delighted to discover that Maury is dating the producer's daughter, Sharon, although Maury protests that Sharon hates her father. Sam invites the couple over that evening, but when he arrives home, discovers that Barbara wants to celebrate their first wedding anniversary by dining with the visiting Allan and Marjorie. Knowing how difficult their impoverished lifestyle is on Barbara, Sam agrees, but during dinner, Allan tries to slip Sam some cash, and Sam storms out. Sam and Barbara are quarreling as they arrive home and are surprised to be met by Maury and Sharon, whom Sam forgot to call. Sharon, a spoiled, flirtatious alcoholic, is in love with Maury, although he derides her desire to marry him. When Sam asks Sharon to bring her father to their play, she laughs, and Maury reveals that he is leaving for a menial job in Hollywood. After they leave, Sam attempts to revive his morale by stating that he can helm The Actors' Rostrum without Maury, but Barbara yells that their life is not good enough for their coming baby. Stunned, Sam begs Barbara to give him one more month to find a theater job and agrees to return to Lansing if he cannot. Barbara gives in, and on the last day of their agreement, the desperate Sam goes to Shirley's office. Bemused by Sam's enthusiasm, Shirley finagles a bit part for him in one of Kensington's plays. When Sam tells Barbara the good news, however, he discovers that she has had a miscarriage and is packing to go home. Although he is grief-stricken, Sam shows up at the theater soon after and is mortified to find another actor reading his lines. When Sam confronts Shirley, she tells him that an old friend of Kensington needed the job more, but the producer has offered Sam a part in a road company touring the country. Hopeful upon hearing that the company will visit Los Angeles, where Maury has become a big movie director, Sam takes the job. In Hollywood, Sam's pleasure at seeing his old friend vanishes when Maury, who now directs Eric in smash films, refuses to see his unimportant play. In Detroit, Sam is served with divorce papers and eventually, after a year of touring, returns to New York. The lonely Shirley, who has a crush on Sam, is delighted to see him and tells him that she is helping cast Kensington's new play, which Maury is directing. Although Maury agrees that Sam would be perfect for the lead, he states that he cannot hire him, as he needs a "name" actor to insure success. Disgusted, Sam stalks off, inadvertently taking Maury's overcoat instead of his own. When he goes to Kensington's penthouse to return the coat, Sam runs into Sharon, who is still in love with Maury. Desperate for affection and hoping to make Maury jealous, Sharon begins a relationship with Sam and soon they are married. Kensington is infuriated by the often-married Sharon's choice but helps his new son-in-law obtain a job on a radio series. A year passes as Sam works steadily, although his marriage to Sharon has disintegrated and she has moved to Hollywood to live with Maury. On their one-year anniversary, Sam tells Shirley that nothing is wrong with his marriage, then inquires about Maury's play, which is not yet cast. Shirley upbraids Sam for having become opportunistic and self-deceiving, but Sam dismisses her concerns. Soon after, Sharon returns to New York to tell Sam that she is expecting Maury's baby and wants a divorce. When Sam bitterly refuses, Maury, who is waiting outside, asks Sam what he wants in exchange for Sharon's freedom. Sam demands the lead in Maury's play and Maury acquiesces. During rehearsals, however, Maury has doubts about Sam's ability to play the role, and when Eric becomes available, Maury fires Sam. Later, when Sharon finds another job for him, Sam merely laughs, showing her a letter from the army ordering him back to duty to fight in the Korean War. Sam survives the intense combat but when he returns to New York and auditions for a television job, he discovers that he has been blacklisted because of his association with The Actors' Rostrum. When Sam questions Shirley, she reveals that Maury, an admitted former Communist, has been ruined and that anyone who worked for him is under suspicion. Despairing about his advancing age, Sam gets a job at O'Malley's as a waiter. Sam continues to go on auditions, however, and even appears in an occasional play, although never with any success. As time passes, he becomes close friends with Charley, who hates to see him unhappy as he continues to strive for recognition. After one audition, for which Sam is rejected because of his blacklisting, he finds Maury is waiting for him outside the theater. Maury tells him that he has a new, small play opening and wants Sam for the lead. Sam caustically asks if Maury wants him only because he cannot get a star and refuses to believe Maury's protestations that he thinks Sam will be perfect for the play, which could be a hit. Finally deciding that Charley is right about settling down to a comfortable life as a waiter, Sam refuses Maury's offer and returns to the restaurant. There, he sees Barbara and her husband, Matt Hemsley. Awaking from his reverie, Sam gathers his courage and goes to their table, where Barbara is pleased to see him. When Matt steps aside to let them talk, Barbara apologizes to Sam for not believing in him during their marriage and tells him how noble she now believes he is for following his dreams. Thunderstruck by Barbara's faith in him, Sam leaves the restaurant to join Maury's play. The show is a huge success and soon is running on Broadway, with Sam's name in lights on the marquee. On the show's second night on Broadway, a drunken Maury, who is cared for by the now-sober Sharon, congratulates Sam, although Sam makes clear that he will never again consider Maury a friend. Shirley, who still cares for Sam, also congratulates him but then bursts into tears, asking Sam if having his name in lights was worth all the heartache and compromises. Hearing the applause as the curtain lifts, Sam tells her that the struggle was worth it, then takes the stage.