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Bob Fosse

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Bob Fosse
Fosse in Pal Joey (1963)
Robert Louis Fosse

(1927-06-23)June 23, 1927
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
DiedSeptember 23, 1987(1987-09-23) (aged 60)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Resting placeAshes scattered in the Atlantic Ocean off the shores of Napeague/Amagansett, New York[1]
40°48′N 72°36′W / 40.8°N 72.6°W / 40.8; -72.6
  • Actor
  • choreographer
  • dancer
  • director
Years active1947–1987
Mary Ann Niles
(m. 1947; div. 1951)
(m. 1952; div. 1959)
(m. 1960)
PartnerAnn Reinking (1972–1978)

Robert Louis Fosse (/ˈfɒsi/; June 23, 1927 – September 23, 1987) was an American actor, choreographer, dancer, and film and stage director.[2] Known for his work on stage and screen, he is arguably the most influential figure in the field of jazz dance in the twentieth century.[3] He received numerous accolades including an Academy Award, a BAFTA Award, three Primetime Emmy Awards, and 9 Tony Awards.

Fosse started his career acting in the musical productions of Call Me Mister (1947), Billion Dollar Baby (1951), and Pal Joey (1952). He transitioned into directing and choreographing musical works including the stage musicals winning Tony Awards for The Pajama Game (1954), Damn Yankees (1955), Redhead (1959), Little Me (1963), Sweet Charity (1966), Pippin (1972), Dancin' (1978), and Big Deal (1986). He also worked on Bells Are Ringing (1956), New Girl in Town (1958), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961), and Chicago (1975).

In film, he played Hortensio in the M-G-M musical Kiss Me, Kate (1953) and had his directorial debut with the musical Sweet Charity (1969). He won the Academy Award for Best Director for musical drama Cabaret (1972). He was Oscar-nominated for directing the dramas Lenny (1974) and All That Jazz (1979), the later of which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. He is also known for directing the concert film Liza with a Z (1972), which earned him the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing for a Variety Special, and his final film Star 80 (1983).

Fosse forged an uncompromising modern style, characterized by finger-snapping, tilted bowler hats, fishnet stockings, splayed gloved fingers, turned-in knees and toes, shoulder rolls and jazz hands. Fosse's life, career and relationship with wife and collaborator Gwen Verdon was profiled in the biography Fosse (2013) by Sam Wasson which was adapted into the FX limited series Fosse/Verdon (2019).

Early life


Fosse was born in Chicago, Illinois, on June 23, 1927, to a Norwegian-American father, Cyril Kingsley Fosse, a traveling salesman for The Hershey Company,[4] and an Irish-American mother, Sarah Alice "Sadie" (née Stanton) Fosse. He was the fifth of six children.[2][5][6]

He was drawn to dance and took lessons. When he was 13 years old, Fosse performed professionally in Chicago with Charles Grass, as "The Riff Brothers".[7] They toured vaudeville and movie houses in Chicago, as well as USO theaters and Eagles Clubs.[8] Many of these performances included shows at burlesque clubs, such as the Silver Cloud and Cave of Winds. Fosse himself is quoted with saying "I was sixteen years old, and I played the whole burlesque wheel." However, many of the women and promoters did not care that Fosse was underage working in adult clubs or that he would be exposed to sexual harassment from the burlesque women. Much of the erotica he saw would inspire his future work. In 1943, at the age of 15, Fosse would come to choreograph his first dance number and earn his first full credit as a choreographer in a film, Hold Evry'thing! A Streamlined Extravaganza in Two Parts, which featured showgirls wearing strapless dresses and performing a fan dance, inspired by his time in burlesque houses.[9]

After graduating from Amundsen High School[10][11][12] in 1945, Fosse was recruited into the U.S. Navy toward the end of World War II at Naval Station Great Lakes, where he was sent to be prepared for combat. Fosse petitioned his manager, Frederick Weaver, to advocate on his behalf to his superiors after his own failed attempts to be placed in the Special Services Entertainment Division.[9] Fosse was soon placed in the variety show Tough Situation, which toured military and naval bases in the Pacific Ocean.[citation needed]



1947–1953: Contract with MGM


After his discharge, Fosse moved to New York City in 1947 with the ambition of being the new Fred Astaire. He began to study acting at the American Theatre Wing, where he met his first wife and dance partner, Mary Ann Niles (1923–1987).[13] His first stage role was in Call Me Mister, along with Niles.[14] Fosse and Niles were regular performers on Your Hit Parade in its 1950–1951 season. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis saw their act in New York's Pierre Hotel and scheduled the couple to appear on The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1951.[15]

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Fosse transitioned from film to theatre. In 1948, Tony Charmoli danced in Make Mine Manhattan, but gave the part to Fosse when the show toured nationally. Charmoli also found Fosse work as a dancer on the TV shows he was working on when Fosse returned from the tour.[16] Fosse told an interviewer, "Jerry [Jerome Robbins] started me doing choreography. He gave me my first job as a choreographer and I'm grateful for that."[17]

Fosse was signed to an MGM contract in 1953.[18] His early screen appearances as a dancer included Give a Girl a Break, The Affairs of Dobie Gillis and Kiss Me Kate, all released in 1953. Fosse's choreography of a short dance sequence in Kiss Me Kate and dance with Carol Haney brought him to the attention of Broadway producers.[19] In Kiss Me Kate, Fosse starred alongisde Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson, and Ann Miller. Fosse played Hortensio within The Taming of the Shrew dance sequences.[20]

1954–1958: Work as a choreographer


In 1954, Fosse choreographed his first musical, The Pajama Game, followed by My Sister Eileen and George Abbott's Damn Yankees in 1955. It was while working on Damn Yankees that he first met rising star Gwen Verdon, whom he married in 1960. For her work in Damn Yankees, Verdon won her first Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical in 1956.[21] She had previously won a Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical for Can-Can (1954). In 1957, Fosse choreographed New Girl in Town, also directed by Abbott, and Verdon won her second Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical in 1958.[21]

In 1957, Fosse choreographed the film version of The Pajama Game starring Doris Day. The next year, Fosse appeared in and choreographed the film version of Damn Yankees, in which Verdon reprised her stage triumph as the character Lola. Fosse and Verdon were partners in the mambo number "Who's Got the Pain".[22] In 1959, Fosse directed and choreographed the musical Redhead.[23] For his work on Redhead, Fosse won the Tony Award for Best Choreography while Verdon won her third Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Redhead won the Tony Award for best musical.[24] Fosse's next feature was supposed to be the musical The Conquering Hero based on a book by Larry Gelbart, but he was replaced as director/choreographer.

In 1961, Fosse choreographed the satirical Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying starring Robert Morse. The story revolves around an ambitious man, J. Pierrepont Finch (Morse), who, with the help of the book How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, rises from window washer to chairman of the board of the World Wide Wicket Company. The musical was an instant hit.[25][26] In 1963, Fosse was nominated for two Tony Awards for Best Choreography and Best Direction of a Musical for the musical Little Me, winning the former.[13] He choreographed and directed Verdon in Sweet Charity in 1966.[27]

1969–1979: Transition as a film director


Fosse directed five feature films. His first, Sweet Charity (1969) starring Shirley MacLaine, is an adaptation of the Broadway musical he had directed and choreographed. In 1972, Fosse directed his second theatrical film, Cabaret, starring Liza Minnelli, Michael York and Joel Grey. The film is based on the 1966 musical of the same name. In the traditional manner of musical theater, called an "integrated musical", every significant character in the stage version sings to express his or her own emotion and to advance the plot. In the film version, the musical numbers are entirely diegetic. The film focuses on a romance between Sally Bowles (Minnelli), who performs at the Kit Kat Klub, and a young British idealist, Brian Roberts, played by York. The story is set during the final decline of Weimar Germany. The film was an immediate success among audiences and critics alike. The film won eight Academy Awards, including Best Director. Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey both won Oscars for their roles in Cabaret.[28] That same year they collaborated on the concert film Liza with a Z, earning Fosse an Emmy Award for both direction and choreography.[13]

In 1973, Fosse's work on Pippin won him the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical.[29] He was director and choreographer of Chicago in 1975, which also starred Verdon.[30] In 1974, Fosse directed Lenny, a biographical film about the controversial standup comedian Lenny Bruce portrayed by Dustin Hoffman. Fosse was again nominated for Best Director, Hoffman also received a nomination for Best Actor.[31] Fosse performed a song and dance in Stanley Donen's 1974 film version of The Little Prince. According to AllMusic, "Bob Fosse stops the show with a slithery dance routine."[32] In 1977, Fosse had a small role in the romantic comedy Thieves.[33]

In 1979, Fosse co-wrote and directed a semi-autobiographical film All That Jazz (1979), starring Roy Scheider, which portrayed the life of a womanizing, drug-addicted choreographer and director in the midst of triumph and failure. Ann Reinking appears in the film as the protagonist's lover, protégée and domestic partner. All That Jazz won four Academy Awards, earning Fosse his third Oscar nomination for Best Director.[34] It also won the Palme d'Or at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival.[35] Vincent Canby of The New York Times described the film as "Mr. Fosse's answer to in which Federico Fellini wittily examined his own life at a point when he feared his creativity was at an end".[36]

1980–1986: Final works


Fosse's final film, Star 80 (1983), was a biographical movie about Dorothy Stratten, a Playboy Playmate who was murdered. The film is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning article. The film was screened out of competition at the 34th Berlin International Film Festival.[37] Critic Roger Ebert in his four star review of the film, wrote, "Although his Broadway musicals have been upbeat entertainments, he seems to see the movie camera as a device for peering into our shames and secrets...This is an important movie. Devastating, violent, hopeless, and important, because it holds a mirror up to a part of the world we live in, and helps us see it more clearly."[38]

In 1986, Fosse wrote, choreographed and directed the Broadway production of Big Deal, which was nominated for five Tony awards, winning for Best Choreography, as well as five more for the revival of Sweet Charity at the nearby Minskoff Theater, winning a Tony Award for Best Revival.[9] Fosse began work on a film about gossip columnist Walter Winchell that would have starred Robert De Niro as Winchell. The Winchell script was written by Michael Herr. Fosse died before starting the Winchell project.[39]



Notable distinctions of Fosse's style included the use of turned-in knees, the "Fosse Amoeba", sideways shuffling, rolled shoulders and jazz hands.[40] With Astaire as an influence, Fosse used props such as bowler hats, canes and chairs. His trademark use of hats was influenced by his own self-consciousness, according to Martin Gottfried in his biography of Fosse, "His baldness was the reason that he wore hats, and was doubtless why he put hats on his dancers."[25] Fosse used gloves in his performances because he did not like his hands. Some of his most popular numbers include "Steam Heat" (The Pajama Game) and "Big Spender" (Sweet Charity). The "Rich Man's Frug" scene (starring a young Ben Vereen) in Sweet Charity is another example of his signature style.

For Damn Yankees, Fosse was inspired by the "father of theatrical jazz dance", Jack Cole.[25] In 1957, Verdon and Fosse studied with Sanford Meisner to develop a better acting technique. According to Michael Joosten, Fosse once said: "The time to sing is when your emotional level is too high to just speak anymore, and the time to dance is when your emotions are just too strong to only sing about how you 'feel.'"[41]

In Redhead, Fosse used one of the first ballet sequences in a show that contained five different styles of dance: Fosse's jazz, a cancan, a gypsy dance, a march and an old-fashioned English music hall number. During Pippin, Fosse made the first television commercial for a Broadway show.[19]

Personal life


Marriage and relationships

Fosse married and collaborated with dancer Gwen Verdon

Fosse married dance partner Mary Ann Niles (1923–1987) on May 3, 1947, in Detroit.[42] In 1952, a year after he divorced Niles, he married dancer Joan McCracken in New York City;[43] this marriage lasted until 1959, when it also ended in divorce.[44]

His third wife was dancer and actress Gwen Verdon, whom he met choreographing Damn Yankees, in which she starred.[45] In 1963, they had a daughter, Nicole Fosse, who later became a dancer and actress. Fosse's extramarital affairs put a strain on the marriage and by 1971 they were separated, although they remained legally married until his death in 1987. Verdon never re-partnered.[25][46][47]During their joint career, Fosse would continually take blame from critics while Gwen Verdon would get praise, no matter how much influence Verdon had on a production. However, Verdon always looked out for him and the Fosse family image, hosting grandiose cast parties and being Fosse's personal press secretary throughout their marriage.[9]

Fosse met dancer Ann Reinking during the run of Pippin in 1972. According to Reinking, their romantic relationship ended "toward the end of the run of Dancin'" (1978).[48] Reinking acted in his musical drama film All That Jazz which is loosely based on his life.[49]

Illness and substance abuse


In 1961, Fosse's epilepsy was revealed when he had a seizure onstage during rehearsals for The Conquering Hero.[25] Fosse's time outside of the rehearsal studio or theater was seldom spent alone. As stated in the biography Fosse by Sam Wasson, "nights alone were murder on Fosse". To alleviate loneliness and insomnia brought on by his prescribed amphetamines, Fosse would often contact dancers he would work with and try to date them, making it hard for many to refuse his advances, but also giving him the affirmation of success he sought.[9]



Fosse died of a heart attack on September 23, 1987, at George Washington University Hospital while the revival of Sweet Charity was opening at the nearby National Theatre.[2] He had collapsed in Verdon's arms near the Willard Hotel.[50] As he had requested, Verdon and Nicole Fosse scattered his ashes in the Atlantic Ocean off Quogue, Long Island, where Fosse had been living with his girlfriend of four years.[1] A month after his death, Verdon fulfilled Fosse's request for his friends to "go out and have dinner on me" by hosting a star-studded, celebrity-filled evening at Tavern on the Green with Verdon, Reinking, Roy Scheider, Ben Vereen, and E. L. Doctorow attending.[51]




Year Title Role Venue Ref.
1947 Call Me Mister Performer – Chorus National Tour
1948 Make Mine Manhattan Performer National Tour
1950 Dance Me a Song Performer – Dancer Royale Theatre, Broadway [52]
1951 Billion Dollar Baby Actor – Champ Watson Alvin Theatre, Broadway [53]
1952 Pal Joey Actor – Joey Evans (understudy) Broadhurst Theatre, Broadway [54]
1954 The Pajama Game Choreographer [55]
1955 Damn Yankees Choreographer Adelphi Theatre, Broadway [56]
1956 Bells Are Ringing Co-choreographer Alvin Theatre, Broadway [57]
1958 New Girl in Town Choreographer 46th Street Theatre, Broadway [58]
1959 Redhead Director / Choreographer [59]
1961 The Conquering Hero Choreographer (uncredited) ANTA Theatre, Broadway [60]
1961 How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying Choreographer 46th Street Theatre, Broadway [61]
1962 Little Me Co-director / Co-choreographer Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, Broadway [62]
1963 Pal Joey Joey Evans New York City Center, Broadway [63]
1965 Pleasures and Palaces Director / Choreographer Fisher Theatre, Detroit [64]
1966 Sweet Charity Director / Choreographer Palace Theatre, Broadway [65]
1972 Pippin Book (uncredited) / Director / Choreographer Imperial Theatre, Broadway [66]
1972 Liza Director / Choreographer Winter Garden Theatre, Broadway [67]
1975 Chicago Book / Director / Choreographer 46th Street Theatre, Broadway [68]
1978 Dancin' Director / Choreographer Ambassador Theatre, Broadway [69]
1986 Big Deal Director / Choreographer Broadway Theatre, Broadway [70]
1986 Sweet Charity Director / Choreographer Minskoff Theatre, Broadway [71]


Year Title Director Writer Choreographer Actor Role Ref.
1953 The Affairs of Dobie Gillis No No No Yes Charlie Trask [72]
1953 Kiss Me Kate No No No Yes Hortensio [72]
1953 Give a Girl a Break No No No Yes Bob Dowdy [72]
1955 My Sister Eileen No No Yes Yes Frank Lippincott [72]
1957 The Pajama Game No No Yes No [72]
1958 Damn Yankees No No Yes Yes Mambo Dancer (uncredited) [72]
1969 Sweet Charity Yes No Yes No [72]
1972 Cabaret Yes No Yes No [72]
1974 The Little Prince No No Yes Yes Actor – The Snake [72]
1974 Lenny Yes No No Yes The Interviewer (voice, uncredited) [72]
1977 Thieves No No No Yes Mr. Day [72]
1979 All That Jazz Yes Yes Yes No [72]
1983 Star 80 Yes Yes No No [72]


Year Title Role Notes Ref.
1950 The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show Dance routine with wife Mary Ann Niles Episode: Gracie the Artist [72]
1959 Startime Director Episode: The Wonderful World of Entertainment [72]
1972 Liza with a Z Director Television special [72]

Awards, honors, and legacy


At the 1973 Academy Awards, Fosse won the Academy Award for Best Director for Cabaret. That same year he won Tony Awards for directing and choreographing Pippin and Primetime Emmy Awards for producing, choreographing and directing Liza Minnelli's television special Liza with a Z. Fosse was the only person to win all three major industry awards in the same year.

Fosse was inducted into the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs, New York, on April 27, 2007. The Los Angeles Dance Awards, founded in 1994, were called the "Fosse Awards", and are now called the American Choreography Awards. The Bob Fosse–Gwen Verdon Fellowship was established by their daughter, Nicole Fosse, in 2003 at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Reinking and Verdon kept Fosse's unique choreography alive after his death. Reinking played the role of Roxie Hart in the New York revival of Chicago, which opened in 1996. She choreographed the dances in Fosse style for that revival. In 1999, Verdon served as artistic consultant on a Broadway musical designed to showcase examples of classic Fosse choreography. Called simply Fosse, the three-act musical revue was conceived and choreographed by Chet Walker, directed and co-conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr., and co-directed, co-choreographed by co-conceived by Ann Reinking. Verdon and Fosse's daughter, Nicole, received a special thanks credit. The show won a Tony for best musical.[73]

Fosse/Verdon is an eight-part American miniseries starring Sam Rockwell as Fosse and Michelle Williams as Verdon. The series, which tells the story of the couple's troubled personal and professional relationship, is based on the biography Fosse by Sam Wasson.[74] It premiered in eight parts on April 9, 2019, on FX. At the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards, Fosse/Verdon received seventeen nominations, including Outstanding Limited Series and acting nominations for Rockwell, Williams, and Qualley. Williams won the Emmy for Outstanding Actress in a Limited Series.

See also



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Further reading