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A chorus of affection for the razzle-dazzle man

Actors from Shirley MacLaine to Joel Grey recall the vision and creativity of Bob Fosse, creator of 'Chicago.'

December 30, 2002|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

If there hadn't been Bob Fosse, there wouldn't be the acclaimed new movie musical "Chicago." The dazzling innovator choreographed and directed the original 1975 Broadway production of "Chicago," which starred his wife, Gwen Verdon, as well as Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach.

Fosse's choreography was sexy and bold, his direction of musicals and movies surreal and daring. Although his first feature film, 1969's "Sweet Charity," was not a hit, his next film, 1972's "Cabaret," transformed the world of movie musicals. The dark and daring film won eight Oscars, with Fosse winning best director over Francis Ford Coppola for "The Godfather." That same year, Fosse also won the Tony for directing "Pippin" and the Emmy for directing the NBC special "Liza With a Z." Fosse is the only director to receive all three honors in the same year.

Fosse received Oscar nominations for best director and screenplay for his 1979 semiautobiographical film, "All That Jazz," about a womanizing, chain-smoking choreographer-director who dies of a heart attack. His last feature film was 1983's "Star 80," a stark, disturbing drama about slain Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten. A smoker who refused to give up cigarettes even after bypass surgery, Fosse died at 60 of a heart attack in 1987 while walking on the street in Washington, D.C.

Several people who worked with Fosse talked recently about his creativity, personality and legacy.

Shirley MacLaine, whom Fosse plucked out of the chorus of "Pajama Game" to understudy the role of Carol Haney in the Broadway musical; MacLaine also starred in "Sweet Charity":

He would always lurk around in the back of the theater. We would see this little guy hunched over. He was hunched when he was probably 9, and he would always have that cigarette dangling from his lips. He would have us in the basement of the St. James Theatre rehearsing "Steam Heat" at 3 or 4 in the morning, cigarette smoke coming out of his mouth. He would always say, "I apologize -- but can we do it again?" and again and again and again.

With "Sweet Charity," this is what happened: Lew Wasserman [then head of MCA] called me and said, "What do you want to do next?" I said, "Sweet Charity." He said, "Who do you want to direct it?" and I said, "Fosse." "He said, "Fosse! He's a choreographer." I said, "Yeah, but he is going to be one of the great directors. Trust me on this."

So he brought out this little guy, and we started working. As we started to work, I realized that he was truly a Fellini aficionado, that's why he had so many big close-ups. I found him working on the picture to be absolutely calm, not at all temperamental, and exquisitely specific.

Do you know what? He died on the street in front of my old ballet school in Washington, D.C. If it wasn't for Fosse putting me in that part in "Pajama Game," how would any of this have happened to me? And then I brought him to Hollywood, and he died in front of my ballet school. So tell me there is no such thing as synchronicity or karma.

John Rubinstein, who starred in the title role of the 1972 musical "Pippin":

He always had the audience in mind. He didn't use euphemisms and mysterious director language when he wanted you to do a take or do a piece of business. Of course, he was very much like that in his choreography. Every move was based on an emotion and thought, a puzzle piece of a total story. That's what made his choreography so electric.

The elbow had to be bent in a certain way because it gave a dancer an attitude, and it was the attitude he was after. Even in death, he did one of the greatest gestures that anybody had ever done. He left in his will a list of people where he left you something like $332.75 to go to dinner on him. Then Gwen called and said we will send you a check, of course, but if you want to pool all of this money we will throw a huge party and that is what, I guess, most of us did ... this big party at Tavern on the Green on the night of his memorial service. There was a huge band and a great dinner. We drank and danced, and Bob was sort of all-pervading. He sort of orchestrated it for us.

Jerry Orbach, who starred as Billy Flynn in Fosse's original 1975 version of "Chicago":

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