From the Archives: Choreographer and Director Bob Fosse Dies
Bob Fosse, the sometime comedy song-and-dance man who won Oscar, Tony and Emmy awards as director and choreographer of such stage and film blockbusters as “Cabaret,” “Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees,” collapsed and died Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
Friends said Fosse, 60, apparently suffered a massive heart attack in his room at the Willard Hotel, where he was preparing for the opening of a revival of one of his biggest hits, the musical “Sweet Charity,” at the National Theater.
“He had been rehearsing the company all day,” Fosse’s press agent, Jeffrey Richards, said in New York. “He had gone back to his hotel room. He and his former wife, Gwen Verdon, who had been working with him, left the theater to go back to the hotel at 6:30 p.m.
“He had a massive heart attack there, and they rushed him to George Washington University Hospital, where they tried to revive him. But they couldn’t.
“The show went on. The cast wasn’t informed until afterward. . . .”
Hospital spokeswoman Yvonne Hiott said Fosse was brought into the emergency room by ambulance at 6:48 p.m. and was pronounced dead of cardiac arrest at 7:23 p.m.
Alma Viator, a spokeswoman for the theater, said the cast was informed of the director’s death after the show and decided to go ahead with the traditional opening night party.
“But it was somber,” she said, “and they toasted him to sustained applause.”
It was, she noted, a fitting end for a man whose life had been lived amid the storm and stress of the theater.
One of the most successful choreographer-directors of all time, Fosse was one of the few individuals to win all three of the major awards of show business: the Academy Award for his direction of “Cabaret,” seven Tonys for directing or choreography in the stage shows “Pajama Game,” “Redhead,” “Damn Yankees,” “Sweet Charity,” “Pippin,” “Dancin”’ and “Little Me,” and three Emmy awards for directing the television special “Liza With a Z.”
“But the awards weren’t the most important thing,” Viator said. “The important thing was the man, himself—the genius and the dedication to excellence that he brought to everything he did. The way he could make you want to do it his way.”
Son of a vaudeville singer-turned-salesman, Robert Louis Fosse was born June 23, 1927, in Chicago and by all accounts was stagestruck at an early age.
His dance studies began in a small neighborhood dance school and moved on to the Frederick Weaver Ballet School, where he was the only boy in the class.
“I got a lot of jokes and I got whistled at a lot,” he recalled. “But I beat up a couple of the bigger whistlers and the rest sort of tapered off after a while. . . .”
Fosse was just 13 when he teamed up with another young dancer, Charles Grass, to perform as the Riff Brothers in vaudeville and burlesque and at movie house amateur nights, where they were planted by the management to make the whole show more endurable. Within a year or two, the team was earning $100 or more a week—excellent pay for the time.
But Fosse was ambitious, and at 15 he was working as master of ceremonies at a series of small nightspots—one of which gave him his first choreographing assignment. It was a number in which four girls maneuvered ostrich feather fans to a Cole Porter melody.
Graduating from Chicago’s Amundsen High School in 1945, Fosse enlisted in the Navy and was assigned to entertainment units in the Pacific, where he later said he perfected his technique as a performer, choreographer—and director.
“I never knew I could handle anything like that until I tried it on Okinawa,” he said. “From then on, I knew what I wanted and where I wanted to go.”
The course of getting there led, after discharge in 1947, to the American Wing Theater in New York, where he studied acting for a year while appearing as a chorus dancer in “Call Me Madam” and “Make Mine Manhattan.”
He made his Broadway performing debut in 1950 in a revue called “Dance Me a Song” and in 1952 understudied Harold Lang in the title role of a revival of “Pal Joey,” later taking over the lead on tour.
He also danced in such television productions as “Show of Shows,” “Toni Review,” “The Fifty-Fourth Street Review” and “Your Hit Parade,” also appearing at the Waldorf-Astoria Roof and Roxy Theater.
Signed to an MGM contract, Fosse came to Hollywood in 1953, where he danced and sang in three musicals, including “Kiss Me Kate,” in which he performed a specialty number with Carol Haney and “Give a Girl a Break,” in which he provided a spectacular closing, executing a backward somersault.
When movie musicals went into a period of decline, he returned to Broadway, where he was hired to choreograph “The Pajama Game,” at the insistence of the show’s director, Jerome Robbins.
The show became a major success, winning him a Donaldson Award and his first Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award, and he picked up his second Tony the following year as choreographer for “Damn Yankees.” That marked the beginning of his successful collaboration with the show’s star, Gwen Verdon, who later became his third wife and the mother of their daughter, Nicole Providence. (He was also married to Mary-Ann Niles and Joan McCracken.)
For the next few years, Fosse shuttled back and forth between Hollywood and Broadway, singing and dancing as well as choreographing Columbia’s film version of “My Sister Eileen” and returning to New York to choreograph “Bells Are Ringing,” in which he collaborated with Robbins on both choreography and staging.
Early in 1957, he adapted his stage choreography for the Warner Bros. version of “The Pajama Game,” while choreographing “New Girl in Town” for stage.
He made the film version of “Damn Yankees” with Verdon, dancing a number with her and re-creating his stage choreography. The pair went east again the following year for “Redhead,” which gave him his first Broadway directing assignment, a major vehicle for Verdon and major triumph for Fosse.
He later directed such stage hits as “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” “Chicago” and others, and won an Academy Award for directing “Cabaret,” changing pace to a straight dramatic directing assignment the following year with Lenny Bruce’s somber biography, “Lenny,” starring Dustin Hoffman.
Subsequently, he was co-choreographer and appeared in the films “The Little Prince” and “Thieves.” And he was credited with appropriating major portions of his own life for the show-business movie musical, “All That Jazz,” the story of a brilliant director and choreographer, equally obsessed with work and women, whose smoking, drinking and insanely frenetic life style finally delivered him to open-heart surgery.
After his divorce from Verdon, Fosse was seen with various girlfriends, including Ann Reinking and Jessica Lange, both of whom appeared in “All That Jazz,” but in that area of his life, Fosse claimed he had slowed down.
“I certainly don’t pursue ladies as much as I used to,” he said. “I’m afraid I’ll catch them, and then I’ll have to do something. But I still find I’m a little more charming and funnier when ladies are around. I seem to strut more. Some inferiority complex when I was a little boy, I suppose. Some need to prove myself.
“But it’s been fun. I wouldn’t have missed any of it. . . .”
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get all the day's most vital news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.