Though he was physically "wrong" as a dancer, Bob Fosse never let those limitations impede his artistic ambition. Molding his own imperfections into a distinct, sinuous style, Fosse left his mark on Broadway and brought an innovative dimension of sophistication and sensual energy to the movie musical in such films as Cabaret (1972) and All That Jazz (1979).
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Born in Chicago, Fosse began dance lessons at age nine. Though physically small and asthmatic, Fosse was a dance prodigy; by high school, he was already an experienced hoofer in Chicago's burlesque scene. After spending two years in the Navy, Fosse moved to New York in 1947. Finding work in the show Call Me Mister, Fosse and fellow dancer/first wife Mary Ann Niles began performing as a couple after Call Me Mister closed, with Fosse choreographing their routines. After meeting his second wife, dancer Joan McCracken, in 1950, Fosse began studying acting and dance at the American Theater Wing. With pigeon toes and slouching posture, Fosse hardly fit the dance ideal so he focused more on rhythm and style to make up for what he lacked physically. Spotted by a talent scout for MGM in 1952, Fosse headed to Hollywood to become a musical star.
Though he displayed sufficient charm in Give a Girl a Break (1953) and The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953), Fosse became disillusioned with Hollywood. Before he left, however, Fosse was given the chance to choreograph his brief pas de deux with Carol Haney in the screen version of Kiss Me Kate (1953). Based on his 48 seconds of sleek, jazzy moves in Kate's "From This Moment On," Fosse was hired to choreograph Jerome Robbins and George Abbott's 1954 Broadway production The Pajama Game. After winning the Tony for choreography, Fosse re-teamed with Abbott and Robbins for 1955's Damn Yankees, devising a then-shocking "striptease" to "Whatever Lola Wants" for his eventual third wife, Gwen Verdon. Between these shows, Fosse returned to Hollywood to co-star in and choreograph My Sister Eileen (1955). His first feature-length stint designing dances for film, Fosse made the most of the widescreen, particularly in his ebullient "Challenge Dance." Fosse's gift for merging film and dance was confirmed with the hit adaptations of The Pajama Game (1957) and Damn Yankees (1958). While The Pajama Game's exuberant outdoor number "Once a Year Day" revealed Fosse's ability to stage a dance over expansive locations, "Steam Heat" became a primer for the Fosse vocabulary of knock-knees, forward-thrust hips, hats, and wrist-snaps. Damn Yankees gave Verdon her only starring turn in a movie musical; the snappy "Who's Got the Pain" mambo was Fosse's only screen appearance dancing with Verdon.
Fosse, however, stuck with Broadway until the late '60s, choreographing and then directing eight musicals between 1956 and 1966, including New Girl in Town and Bells Are Ringing. After making his directorial debut with the Verdon hit Redhead in 1959, Fosse did double duties on the smash How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and the Federico Fellini-meets-Broadway hit Sweet Charity.
Returning to films with the choreography for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967), Fosse agreed to adapt Sweet Charity (1969) if he could direct. With former Pajama Game understudy Shirley MacLaine replacing Verdon as the optimistic hooker Charity, Fosse effectively translated such show stoppers as the rooftop jaunt "There's Got to Be Something Better Than This" and dancehall come-on "Hey Big Spender" to the CinemaScope screen. The dramatic parts, however, were not impressive and Sweet Charity failed.
Fosse got another shot at movie-directing when a neophyte producer hired him to adapt Cabaret (1972). Shooting on location in Germany, restricting most of the songs and all of the dances to the cramped Kit Kat Club stage and hiring dancers who looked the part of decadent Berlinites, Fosse gave the film an authentically grungy atmosphere that enhanced the story's dark intimations of the impending Third Reich. Anchored by impressive performances from Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles and Joel Grey as the emcee, Cabaret became a critical and popular hit and garnered Oscars for Minnelli and Grey and Best Director for Fosse. 1972 became a historic year for Fosse when he also won the Best Director Tony for the sexy rock musical Pippin and a Best Director Emmy for the TV special Liza With a "Z" (1972).
After co-choreographing and dancing in the film version of The Little Prince (1974), Fosse took on non-musical film drama with his next directorial effort, Lenny (1974). Starring Dustin Hoffman as trail-blazing foul-mouthed comedian Lenny Bruce and newcomer Valerie Perrine as his stripper wife, Lenny was a resolutely downbeat treatment of Bruce's rise and precipitous fall that earned accolades and Oscar nominations for Fosse and his stars. Fosse's work and personal habits, however, caught up with him before Lenny's release, when he suffered a heart attack and underwent open-heart surgery in late 1974. The following year, Chicago, Fosse's last musical collaboration with now-estranged wife Verdon, became yet another hit. Fosse turned his 1974 crisis into material for his next film, the Fellini-esque musical All That Jazz (1979). Starring Roy Scheider as a hard-living director-choreographer juggling women and work, All That Jazz amounted to Fosse's requiem for his own demise, complete with Jessica Lange as an ethereal angel of death, an elaborately imagined danse macabre, and onscreen open-heart surgery. Though some deemed All That Jazz self-indulgent, the Academy acknowledged Fosse's chutzpah with another Oscar nomination.
His onscreen death a tad premature, Fosse returned to straight drama with Star 80 (1983). A sordid biopic chronicling the brief life of murdered Playmate Dorothy Stratten, Star 80 proved too unpleasant for popular acceptance. Returning to Broadway, Fosse unsuccessfully adapted the Italian comedy Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) as Big Deal in 1985. Working until the end, Fosse passed away with appropriate theatricality when he was felled by a heart attack shortly after the curtain went up on his revival of Sweet Charity in 1987. ~ Lucia Bozzola, Rovi