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Bob Fosse

Bob Fosse



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Also Known As: Robert Louis Fosse, Robert Fosse Died: September 23, 1987
Born: June 23, 1927 Cause of Death: heart attack
Birth Place: Chicago, Illinois, USA Profession: director, choreographer, actor, screenwriter, vaudevillian, dancer, librettist


Arguably one of the most influential and visionary choreographers of the 20th century, Bob Fosse brought style and sexuality to the Broadway stage through his dances for such memorable musicals as "The Pajama Game" (1954), "Damn Yankees" (1958), "Sweet Charity" (1969), "Pippin" (1972) and "Chicago" (1975), as well as his direction on such films as "Cabaret" (1972), "Lenny" (1974) and "All That Jazz" (1979). Fosse began his career as a dancer with aspirations of Hollywood stardom, but his slight stature and baldness put a halt to that dream. He headed for Broadway, where his steamy, jazz-influenced choreography and direction wowed audiences and earned numerous Tonys. In 1969, he made the leap to film directing, and won the Oscar for "Cabaret" before enjoying critical success with the Lenny Bruce biopic, "Lenny," and the autobiographical fantasy, "All That Jazz" (1979). A larger-than-life figure whose passion for his art was matched by his appetite for hard, fast-paced living, Fosseâ¿¿s drive and technique made him a legend in the theater world, which fell in love with him again through celebrations and revivals after his untimely death in 1987.Born Robert Louis Fosse in Chicago, IL on June 23, 1927,...

Arguably one of the most influential and visionary choreographers of the 20th century, Bob Fosse brought style and sexuality to the Broadway stage through his dances for such memorable musicals as "The Pajama Game" (1954), "Damn Yankees" (1958), "Sweet Charity" (1969), "Pippin" (1972) and "Chicago" (1975), as well as his direction on such films as "Cabaret" (1972), "Lenny" (1974) and "All That Jazz" (1979). Fosse began his career as a dancer with aspirations of Hollywood stardom, but his slight stature and baldness put a halt to that dream. He headed for Broadway, where his steamy, jazz-influenced choreography and direction wowed audiences and earned numerous Tonys. In 1969, he made the leap to film directing, and won the Oscar for "Cabaret" before enjoying critical success with the Lenny Bruce biopic, "Lenny," and the autobiographical fantasy, "All That Jazz" (1979). A larger-than-life figure whose passion for his art was matched by his appetite for hard, fast-paced living, Fosseâ¿¿s drive and technique made him a legend in the theater world, which fell in love with him again through celebrations and revivals after his untimely death in 1987.

Born Robert Louis Fosse in Chicago, IL on June 23, 1927, he was the second youngest of six children born to a Norwegian father who performed in vaudeville and an Irish mother. Small in stature and suffering from both asthma and epilepsy, he found an outlet in dance, and began taking lessons at the age of nine. By high school, he was a veteran of the Chicago burlesque scene, and after teaming with another young performer, Charles Grass, they toured the country as The Riff Brothers. Fosseâ¿¿s talents caught the attention of producers who hired him for a show called "Tough Situation." The production toured military bases throughout the Pacific during World War II, and provided Fosse with an invaluable canvas on which he could perfect his future skills as a choreographer and director. In 1947, Fosse moved to New York City in the hopes of finding work as a Broadway dancer. He was quickly signed to the show "Call Me Mister," where he was teamed with Mary Ann Niles, who became his first wife in 1949. After the show closed, the duo became a popular attraction on television shows like "Your Hit Parade" (NBC/CBS, 1950-59) and "The Colgate Comedy Hour" (NBC, 1950-55). After Fosse and Niles divorced in 1951, he teamed with and married dancer Joan McCracken, and began studying acting at the American Theater Wing in the hopes of becoming an actor-dancer like Fred Astaire. He soon graduated to leads in summer-stock productions, which in turn, led to a screen test for MGM.

Fosse soon found himself in demand as a dancer in Hollywood musicals, most notably in "Give a Girl a Break" (1953) and "Kiss Me Kate" (1953), which allowed him to choreograph a brief but remarkably complicated sequence with Carol Haney. Unfortunately, Fosse lacked the physical qualities of a traditional leading man: though lithe and graceful, he was also pigeon-toed, round-shouldered and most significantly, prematurely bald, which he attempted to disguise with a variety of hats, including his future signature touch, the bowler. Faced with the fact that he would never progress to the stature of an Astaire or Gene Kelly, he reluctantly returned to New York to work in theatre. His brief film career would provide him with the launching pad he needed: he was hired to choreograph the 1954 musical "The Pajama Game" based on his 48 seconds of work in "Kiss Me Kate." The show gave the theater world their first taste of Fosseâ¿¿s unique style â¿¿ a seamless blend of jazz, popular dances like mambo and the eroticism of his burlesque days, with an emphasis on small but exact, almost mechanical gestures, like thrusting hips, spread-wide fingers and snapped wrists. Fosse also incorporated his own physicality into his work, with frequent rolled shoulders and knocked knees, as well as a penchant for his dancers to wear bowler hats and/or gloves; the latter being a reference to his own dislike of his hands. Broadway audiences and critics responded to his work with overwhelming praise, and "Pajama Game" earned Fosse his first of numerous Tony Awards.

The following year, Fosse struck gold again with "Damn Yankees," which starred an exuberant red-haired dancer named Gwen Verdon. She would become his third wife and longest-running collaborator, and he would provide her with signature dances like a steamy striptease number to "Whatever Lola Wants" in "Yankees." Both Fosse and Verdon won Tonys for their work in the show, and would continue to collaborate on numerous stage musicals, including 1957â¿¿s "New Girl in Town" and "Redhead" (1959), which marked his debut as both director and choreographer. Again, the Fosse-Verdon team claimed Tonys for actress and choreography, as well as Best Musical of 1959. Hollywood began to take notice of Fosseâ¿¿s work, and lured him back to the studios to direct the dancing for "My Sister Eileen" (1955). He proved to be a natural at adapting his stage style for cinematic purposes, and made exceptional use of location work in the screen versions of "The Pajama Game" (1957) and "Damn Yankees" (1958). The latter also marked his sole onscreen performance with Verdon in a mambo for "Whoâ¿¿s Got the Pain." His second stint in the movies proved equally short-lived, and by 1960, he was back on Broadway, directing and choreographing such hits as "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" (1961), "Little Me" (1962) and "Sweet Charity" (1966), of which the latter two earned him Tonys. "Charity" also provided him with another trademark number, the staccato, highly stylized "Hey Big Spender," which allowed him to further push the boundaries of sexuality in dance.

Fosse would later repeat his choreography for the film versions of "Business" (1967) and "Charity" (1969), but in the case of the latter, it came with a condition: that he be allowed to direct the film itself as well. Unfortunately, the results were mixed. Though he made excellent use of the CinemaScope process for numbers like "Spender," the film, which replaced Verdon in the lead with former "Pajama Game" understudy Shirley Maclaine, was a dismal failure and nearly brought Universal Pictures to its knees. Broadway welcomed Fosse back with "Pippin" (1972), a surreal fantasy that became one of his biggest successes, running for over 1,900 performances and introducing the public to the unique talents of actor-singer Ben Vereen. The showâ¿¿s runaway popularity was the spearhead of a long and prolific period for Fosse, and one that brought him his greatest triumphs. In 1972, he directed "Liza with a Z" (NBC), a concert film of actress-singer Liza Minnelli in performance at the Lyceum Theatre in New York. The show helped to mint Minnelli as a star in the making, and earned Fosse three Emmys, including Outstanding Directorial Achievement, as well as a Directors Guild of America Award. Fosse had also won the Tony for "Pippin" that same year, and would pull off an astonishing hat trick with the release of "Cabaret" in early February.

Fosse was an unlikely choice to direct the film version of John Kander and Fred Ebbsâ¿¿ 1966 musical. His struggle with the dramatic moments in "Sweet Charity" concerned the filmâ¿¿s producers, who saw that equal time and attention would need to be devoted to these scenes in addition to the musical numbers. However, Fosse was hired at the insistence of veteran Broadway producer, Cy Feuer, who had mounted some of Fosseâ¿¿s biggest hits and was producing "Cabaret." The result largely dispensed with Kander and Ebbâ¿¿s original text; focusing instead on the life of Minnelliâ¿¿s American singer, Sally Bowles, as she descended into the decadence of Nazi Germany via its nightclub scene. Buoyed by an authentically decadent atmosphere and the venomous performance of Joel Grey as the Master of Ceremonies, "Cabaret" was a massive hit, earning eight Oscars, including Best Director for Fosse, whose competition included Francis Ford Coppola for "The Godfather." In doing so, he had earned three of the biggest awards in show business in a single year.

For his next screen effort, Fosse eschewed the musical altogether to focus on the short but celebrated life of controversial comedian, Lenny Bruce. Dustin Hoffman portrayed Bruce in "Lenny" (1974), a decidedly dark and meditative piece about Bruceâ¿¿s extraordinary incendiary talents and his ultimate downfall after becoming a target for censors. Fosse, who had faced similar challenges with his eroticized choreography, shot the film in black and white and with a riveting verite style, which earned him an Oscar nod for Best Director. However, the achievements were overshadowed by a heart attack he suffered while editing the picture. At the time, Fosse was also preparing his next Broadway show, "Chicago," based on the scandalous real-life case of two murderesses in the 1920s, and the stresses of both productions took their toll. Those close to Fosse, however, knew that additional strains had been placed on Fosseâ¿¿s health: he consumed drugs, alcohol, women and cigarettes at an alarming rate, which, when combined with his established health issues and relentless work ethic, contributed to his collapse. In 1974, Fosse underwent open-heart surgery.

Despite his setbacks, Fosse was able to continue as both writer and director-choreographer of "Chicago." Drawing from his own background as a Windy City native and a veteran of its seamy entertainment underbelly, Fosse again found common ground in its heroes, Jazz-era libertines Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, who flew in the face of societal norms by embracing the vices of the period and making a scene from the murders of their respective lovers. Gwen Verdon, who had divorced Fosse in 1971 after numerous infidelities, played Roxie Hart, and would look past their troubled history to remain a faithful companion and collaborator to Fosse until the end of his life. However, the production received mixed reviews during its run, and was routed in nearly every Tony race by "A Chorus Line." It would eventually assume its place among the great musicals of the 20th century in a 1996 revival choreographed in Fosseâ¿¿s style by dancer Ann Reinking, who replaced Verdon during the original Broadway run, and one of Fosseâ¿¿s romantic companions following his divorce. This version eventually became the longest-running musical revival in history, and the sixth longest-running Broadway show ever.

In 1979, Fosse returned to filmmaking with "All That Jazz," an autobiographical fantasy about a driven, pill-popping theater director (Roy Scheider) who realized that the only way to save his current project, a gargantuan musical gone far over budget, was to die. The film, which drew directly from Fosseâ¿¿s own life â¿¿ from his collapse while working on "Lenny" to his relationships with figures based on Verdon, Reinking (who played a version of herself) and his daughter, Nicole â¿¿ took a surreal approach to the telling, with an Angel of Death (Jessica Lange) serving as Scheiderâ¿¿s confessor/lover and a major song-and-dance number to signal Scheiderâ¿¿s death. Critics were largely wowed by the film, which received the Palme dâ¿¿Or at Cannes and four Oscars, including original score, as well as nominations for Fosse as Best Director. It would be his last major work for the screen.

Fosseâ¿¿s final years were marked by misfires. "Star 80" (1983) was a grim biopic about Playmate Dorothy Stratten, who was murdered by her abusive husband (Eric Roberts); the subject matter turned off most audiences, resulting in a financial flop. His final original musical, "Big Deal" (1986), was based on Mario Monicelliâ¿¿s celebrated Italian caper comedy "Big Deal on Madonna Street" (1958), but failed to win over audiences, despite five Tony nominations, including two for Fosse as director and choreographer. On Sept. 23, 1987, the 60-year-old Fosse suffered a heart attack on the opening night of a revival of "Sweet Charity." He was taken to George Washington University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Verdon, who served as assistant director for the revival, was with him at the time of the fatal attack. In the years following his death, both Verdon and Reinking worked to keep Fosseâ¿¿s legacy alive. The former served as artistic consultant for 1999â¿¿s "Fosse," a three-act celebration of his greatest dances that won the Tony for Best Musical. Reinkingâ¿¿s revival of "Chicago" led to a celebrated 2002 film adaptation by director Rob Marshall, which in turn, sparked an interest in Fosseâ¿¿s life and work. In 2007, Fosse was inducted posthumously into the National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame, and a section of Paulina Street in Chicago was named "Bob Fosse Way."


Filmographyclose complete filmography


  Star 80 (1983) Director
  All That Jazz (1979) Director
  Lenny (1974) Director
  Cabaret (1972) Director
  Sweet Charity (1969) Director
  Liza With a Z (1972) Director

CAST: (feature film)

 Thieves (1977) Junky
 Little Prince, The (1974) Snake
 Damn Yankees (1958) Fosse, Lola's mambo partner
 My Sister Eileen (1955) Frank Lippencott
 Give a Girl a Break (1954) Bob Dowdy
 The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953) Charlie Trask
 Kiss Me Kate (1953) "Hortensio"

Milestones close milestones

Danced in vaudeville and burlesque as an adolescent in his native Chicago
As a sailor during World War II, performed in variety shows put together by Joseph Papp
After WWII formed a dance act with first wife Mary Ann Niles
Moved to NYC
Stage debut in chorus of national touring company of "Call Me Mister"
Broadway debut in revue, "Dance Me a Song"; met future second wife Joan McCracken
Moved to Hollywood
Signed MGM contract and appeared in "Give a Girl a Break", "The Affairs of Dobie Gillis" and "Kiss Me Kate"
Choreographed onscreen dance for himself and Carol Haney in "From This Moment On" number in "Kiss Me Kate"
First Broadway play as choreographer, "The Pajama Game"; received first Tony Award
First film as choreographer, "My Sister Eileen"; also acted
Choreographed "New Girl in Town", a musical adaptation of "Anna Christie", starring third wife Gwen Verdon
Made Broadway musical directing debut with "Redhead", starring Gwen Verdon and Richard Kiley
Directed "Little Me"; first collaboration with Neil Simon as book writer
Returned to stage as a performer in City Center revival of "Pal Joey"
Only Fosse show to close before reaching Broadway, "Pleasures and Palaces", bombed at Detroit's Fisher Theatre
Had success on Broadway with the musical "Sweet Charity", with book by Neil Simon and starring Verdon
Film directing debut, "Sweet Charity", starring Shirley MacLaine
Won what showbiz folks refer to as the triple crown: the Oscar for directing "Cabaret" (1972); the Tony for directing "Pippin" (and another for choregraphing it), and the Emmy for directing (and two others, for choreographing and producing) the NBC variety special "Liza With a Z"
Helmed fine adaptation of Julian Berry's play "Lenny", a powerful biography of troubled nightclub comic Lenny Bruce; earned second Oscar nomination as Best Director
Co-choreographed and appeared as the Snake in the film musical "The Little Prince"
"Chicago", conceived and directed by Fosse (with book by Fosse and lyricist Fred Ebb and music by John Kander), opened on Broadway, starring Verdon and Chita Rivera; the song "All That Jazz" would become the title of his autobiographical fantasy film; an even more successful revival of "Chicago" would open in 1996
His dance spectacular "Dancin'" opened on Broadway, pointing the way to shows that could play easily to foreign business travelers, without the language barrier
Directed "All That Jazz", starring Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange and Ann Reinking; also wrote screenplay and choreographed; earned Oscar nominations as Best Director and for Best Original Screenplay
Wrote and directed "Star 80", the story of Dorothy Statton's life and tragic murder; Fosse's last movie, he re-edited it for TV
Adapted musical book, "Big Deal", from the Italian film "Big Deal on Madonna Street"
Stage the popular revival of "Sweet Charity", featuring Debbie Allen, Bebe Neuwirth and Michael Rupert
Collapsed on the street in Washington DC, dying within sight of the National Theatre where his dancers were dressing for a touring revival of "Sweet Charity"
"Fosse: A Celebration in Song and Dance", an ambitious retrospective co-conceived by Richard Maltby, Ann Reinking and Chet Walker (with Gwen Verdon as artistic advisor); show's title shortened to "Fosse" for its Broadway run


Amundsen High School: Chicago , Illinois -
American Theatre Wing: New York , New York - 1947 - 1948


"There were a couple of men who were crazy about me when they saw '[King] Kong'. Fosse was one. He got in touch with me. We became friends and lovers. We had a wonderful relationship. We laughed like crazy. I loved Fosse because he was a renegade and there was such a dark side to him. He loved that whole seedy side of New York--Forty-Second Street, the strip joints, the live sex shows. We'd hang out there, go to the arcades, these weird shows. Fosse knew it like the back of his hand. We were in and out of places you wouldn't even know existed.

"There was something very seductive about someone so caught up in self-destruction. It was very much like what you saw in 'All That Jazz', with his drinking and smoking. But he was unbelievably sweet, tender, and generous. He was so kind at a time when a lot of people had dismissed me ... There was, about Fosse, something sad. Profoundly lonely. That's what I connected with more than anything." --Jessica Lange quoted in Vanity Fair, October 1991.

Fosse once claimed his distinctive look stemmed from an attempt to hide his deficiencies: "I was getting pretty bald for a hoofer and felt a hat would hide it. Canes became important to me when my hands started trembling and seemed like a good way to distract the audience." --from The Boston Globe, September 6, 1998.

As Fosse acknowledged, his turned-in, angular, low-to-the-ground style developed from what [Gwen] Hillier [former Fosse dancer and director of a 1998 revival of 'Pippin' in the Los Angeles area] calls "the quirkiness of his own body--he wasn't tall, didn't have a huge build or as much ballet training as he probably would have liked." So he began by capitalizing on his unique personality as a dancer and later demanded the same individuality from others.

"The original [national company of] 'Pippin' was one of the first shows that I danced where I wasn't just a happy villager. He explained that he wanted each of us to find out exactly who we were in the show, to make our own personal statement there." --From Los Angeles Times, May 7, 1998.

"My life is an open pamphlet." --Bob Fosse

"He was like a master chef who put his finger in the kettle and said, 'It's right.' He was hardly an intellectual. He had this long sleaze streak, and that got him into trouble. But I don't know that you could classify him as a rebel." --biographer Morton Gottfried quoted in USA Today, June 23, 1998.

Companions close complete companion listing

Mary Ann Niles. Dancer. First wife; married in 1949; divorced in 1951; died in 1987, one week after Fosse's death.
Joan McCracken. Dancer, actor. Second wife; married in 1953; divorced in 1954; died in 1961; met while both appeared in "Dance Me a Song" on Broadway (1949).
Gwen Verdon. Dancer, actor, assistant choreographer. Married in 1960; separated but never divorced, remaining friends and collaborators; he collapsed in her arms in 1987, stricken with his third, and fatal heart attack; starred as Lola in film version of "Damn Yankees", choreographed by Fosse.
Ann Reinking. Dancer, actor, choreographer. Together on and off from 1973 to 1979.
Jessica Lange. Actor, model. Had on-again, off-again relationship that began in 1975.
Julie Hagerty. Actor. Had on-again, off-again relationship between 1977 and 1979.

Family close complete family listing

Cyril K Fosse.
Sarah Fosse.
Nicole Fosse. Actor, dancer. Born 1963; mother Gwen Verdon; performed in father's "Dancin'" (1978); consulted on the 1998 retrospective "Fosse: A Celebration in Song and Dance"; has three children.

Bibliography close complete biography

"Razzle Dazzle: The Life and Work of Bob Fosse"
"All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse"
"Bob Fosse's Broadway" Heinemann

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