Bob Fosse Biography

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Birth Name: Bob Fosse
Born: 06/23/1927
Birth Place: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Death Place: Washington, Washington D.C., USA
Died: 09/23/1987


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. Fosse'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 Fosse's unique style - 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 1957'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 Fosse'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 "Who'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 show'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 Ebbs' 1966 musical. His struggle with the dramatic moments in "Sweet Charity" concerned the film'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 Fosse's biggest hits and was producing "Cabaret." The result largely dispensed with Kander and Ebb's original text; focusing instead on the life of Minnelli'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 Bruce'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 Fosse'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 Fosse's style by dancer Ann Reinking, who replaced Verdon during the original Broadway run, and one of Fosse'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 Fosse's own life - 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 - took a surreal approach to the telling, with an Angel of Death (Jessica Lange) serving as Scheider's confessor/lover and a major song-and-dance number to signal Scheider's death. Critics were largely wowed by the film, which received the Palme d'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.

Fosse'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 Monicelli'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 Fosse's legacy alive. The former served as artistic consultant for 1999's "Fosse," a three-act celebration of his greatest dances that won the Tony for Best Musical. Reinking's revival of "Chicago" led to a celebrated 2002 film adaptation by director Rob Marshall, which in turn, sparked an interest in Fosse'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."




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