Whether or not you’re a musical theater aficionado, you’ve very likely seen evidence of Bob Fosse’s revolutionary influence on dance. From Bring It On’s “spirit fingers” scene to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” video, Fosse-inspired choreography continues to razzle-dazzle audiences more than 30 years after his death.
Fosse’s life, work, and relationship with legendary performer Gwen Verdon have recently been immortalized in FX’s Emmy-nominated television series Fosse/Verdon, but there’s always more to see behind the scenes. Read on to get to know the man who blessed us with Sweet Charity (1969), Cabaret (1972), and so many other musical must-sees.
1. Bob Fosse was named after a classic novelist.
Robert Louis Fosse’s parents named him after their favorite writer, Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson. Whether or not they hoped Bob would follow in Stevenson’s footsteps is a mystery, but Fosse certainly created plenty of footsteps of his own.
2. Bob Fosse’s parents dabbled in show business.
Fosse’s father Cyril and uncle Richard performed in a vaudeville act, where Cyril played the spoons, Richard played the piano, and they both sang. It fell apart after Richard was diagnosed with cancer, and Cyril became a Hershey chocolate salesman. Fosse’s mother Sadie’s career was less involved but equally interesting: She performed as a spear-wielding extra in the opera.
3. Bob Fosse was briefly in the Navy.
Fosse was still in boot camp when World War II ended, so he spent the next year performing all over the South Pacific in the Navy’s entertainment troupe. After he was discharged, Fosse moved to New York City to pursue a career in theater, and the GI Bill made it possible for him to take a year’s worth of free courses at the American Theatre Wing. “The G.I. bill paid for all of it, acting, diction, singing, ballet, modern dance, choreography,” Fosse told The New York Times in 1973.
4. Bob Fosse’s second wife encouraged him to become a choreographer.
Fosse credits his second wife, dancer Joan McCracken, with steering him toward choreography. “She kept saying, ‘You’re too good for nightclubs,’” Fosse said. “She was the one who changed [my life] and gave it direction.”
5. Bob Fosse (sort of) lied his way into a choreography career.
Fosse had choreographed only one 45-second dance number in the 1953 film version of Kiss Me Kate when New York City Ballet choreographer Jerome Robbins recommended him to director George Abbott to choreograph the 1954 musical The Pajama Game.
“I lied about having done a lot of choreography,” Fosse told Rolling Stone. “In fact, I lied myself into the job. But that’s what I thought you did in show business. I thought that’s how you showed you had confidence.”
6. Bob Fosse had serious audition anxiety.
The “Fake it ‘til you make it” strategy didn’t stop at job interviews, and Fosse had to dance through nausea-inducing anxiety at many an audition before he broke into the choreography business. “If I had to audition on Wednesday, I’d start throwing up on Saturday night,” he told The New York Times.
7. Bob Fosse brought jazz hands into the limelight.
Though “jazz hands” or “spirit fingers” likely date back much further than Fosse, they have been strongly associated with him since he directed and choreographed the 1972 musical Pippin. The opening number is rife with hand motions, some of them very jazzy. Pippin was also the first Broadway musical with its own television commercial, which helped increase mainstream visibility for Fosse’s very precise, expressive choreographic style—jazz hands included.
8. Bob Fosse is the only person to win Emmy, Tony, and Academy Awards for direction in the same year.
In 1973, Fosse brought home the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical for Pippin, the Academy Award for Best Director for Cabaret (beating out Francis Ford Coppola, who was nominated for The Godfather), and the Emmy for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy, Variety or Music for Liza With a Z. With those three awards, Fosse clinched the elusive directorial triple crown, but they weren’t the only awards he won that year: he also took home Emmys in Best Choreography and overall Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy for Liza With a Z, plus the Best Choreography Tony for Pippin. (Unfortunately, Fosse was a Grammy shy of an EGOT.)
9. Bob Fosse was terrified of failure.
In an interview with newscaster David Sheehan (who also filmed Fosse’s stage production of Pippin—the first Broadway musical ever performed on camera), Fosse opened up about his fear that he wouldn’t be able to properly execute his ideas. Even after remarkable successes like Cabaret and Sweet Charity, Fosse worried that he didn’t possess the talent or intelligence to pull off new projects. “Every time I start on something new, it’s like day one,” he said. “How do I do this?”
10. Bob Fosse was inspired by Federico Fellini.
Italian film director Federico Fellini’s 1957 drama Nights of Cabiria served as the basis for Fosse’s 1966 musical Sweet Charity, starring then-wife Gwen Verdon. (In 1969, Fosse would adapt the musical into his feature directorial debut, replacing Verdon with Shirley MacLaine.)
Fosse looked to Fellini for inspiration again for his semi-autobiographical 1979 film All That Jazz, which follows the flashy career of a director-choreographer played by Roy Scheider. Fellini’s 1963 film 8 ½, on the other (jazz) hand, chronicles the career of a fictional Italian film director.
For his part, Fosse was happy to admit the similarities. “When I steal, I steal from the best,” he told Rolling Stone.
11. Bob Fosse was a perfectionist.
The precision and attention to detail with which Fosse approached dance and choreography also characterized his directorial style. His last film was 1983’s Star 80, a dark drama about the murder of Playboy model Dorothy Stratten at the hands of her husband, Paul Snider. On set, Fosse insisted that they use Snider’s exact brown carpet for the crime scene, even though the blood wouldn’t show up well on screen. Fosse also instructed his crew to ensure that every book in every bookcase on their Playboy Mansion set matched Hugh Hefner’s personality—regardless of whether or not the books would even make it into the shot.
12. Bob Fosse turned down an offer to direct Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video.
In June 1983, Michael Jackson invited Fosse to lunch, gushed about how much Fosse’s choreography had inspired him, and asked him to direct the music video for “Thriller.” Fosse declined.
13. Bob Fosse predicted that he’d die young.
Heart attacks had wiped out plenty of Fosse’s kin, and he suffered his first (of several) in the fall of 1974 while he was simultaneously editing Lenny and rehearsing Chicago for Broadway. In 1983, Fosse told Rolling Stone that given his family history, he figured he only had time for two or three more projects. In hindsight, the statement seems eerily clairvoyant. He choreographed and directed the musical Big Deal in 1986, and staged a Sweet Charity revival in 1987. En route to the opening of Sweet Charity, Fosse suffered another heart attack, and passed away at age 60.
14. Bob Fosse basically threw his own funeral party.
After Fosse’s first heart attack, he had added a codicil to his will mandating that $25,000 be split evenly among 66 of his friends and then donated back to a funeral party budget. That way, at least those 66 people would feel a sense of responsibility to get together and celebrate Fosse’s life. It worked: the group threw a smashing event in Tavern on the Green’s Crystal Ballroom with approximately 200 of Fosse’s friends, flames, and creative collaborators in attendance.
15. Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon never formally divorced.
While Fosse’s extramarital affairs led to his 1971 split with Verdon, they never divorced; the couple was still technically married when Fosse died 16 years later. Though not always credited, Verdon continued to work with Fosse on many productions, including Cabaret, Chicago, and All That Jazz. She was even with him when he died.