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Fosse’s Follies

The man who brought you ‘All That Jazz’ and ‘Cabaret’ presents ‘Star 80,’ his latest tour of the seamy side of streets paved with gold

dancer, choreographer, Bob Fosse, Broadway Arts Studiodancer, choreographer, Bob Fosse, Broadway Arts Studio

American dancer and choreographer Bob Fosse at the Broadway Arts Studio in New York City on January 30th, 1980.

Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

Director/choreographer/dancer /actor/writer Bob Fosse has always nurtured and been surrounded by charmed lives. He brought out Judy Holliday’s talent for dancing in Bells Are Ringing; cast the then unknowns Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl and Jill Clayburgh in Pippin; directed Liza Minnelli in her Oscar-winning performance in Cabaret; and showcased Jessica Lange in All That Jazz.

Perhaps with this glittering gallery of leading ladies in mind, a mischievously odd group of ingenues planned for an audition at Fosse’s Long Island country home. They had been inspired after Fosse jokingly told them that his home’s newly built dance studio would be used to hold classes for male writers over 50.

The group, consisting of Fosse’s friends, writers E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime) and Peter Maas (Serpico) and the portly superagent Sam Cohn, made their move at a party following the completion of the studio. Artfully tailored in pink tutus, the hopeful trio tiptoed into the studio while Fosse was dressing for the evening. Bach playing on the stereo alerted Fosse that something was, well, afoot. When he entered the studio, the aging corps de ballet was gamely working on its pliés, arabesques and glissades like wayward George Plimptons. After Cohn finished with a Degas bow, Fosse rounded up flowers and tossed bouquets at the triumphant “students.”

“Can you imagine Sam,” Fosse says now, laughing as he shapes a globular stomach in the air, “in a tutu?”

He reveals this glimpse into his incandescent circle of modern muses as we talk in the living room of his Manhattan apartment. Yet although Fosse appears to fit in naturally at the radiant center, in reality he is strangely ill at ease with himself and the circle. These darker feelings, though, have their outlets. With volcanic force, they have erupted as never before in his latest movie, an intense film that casts a foreboding, malevolent pall over all the shining, charmed lives.

In Star 80, Fosse shotgun-blasts away the American Dream — Hollywood style. It is the unflinchingly true story of the murder three years ago of 1980 Playboy Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten by her estranged husband, Paul Snider, who then turned his 12-gauge Mossberg on himself. Death, though, was only the final tragedy. There were little murders all along the way.

Dorothy Stratten was the 18-year-old Vancouver Dairy Queen golden maiden who became the focus of three men’s fantasies. First, there was Snider, a lightweight promoter and sometime pimp who swept Stratten out from behind the counter in true Schwab’s Drugstore fashion, hustled her a centerfold and married her, thereby hooking himself onto her success. He was followed by the squire of the bunny hutch, Hugh Hefner, who saw Stratten as a vehicle for satisfying his frustrated ambitions of being a star-maker. And finally, there was director Peter Bogdanovich, who with his cookie-cutter taste in starlets, first cast Stratten in a movie, then became her lover. The telling of this story helped earn Teresa Carpenter of the Village Voice a Pulitzer prize. When Fosse read it, he quickly cut through the tangle of relationships, eliminating all but one point of view. Hefner (played in the movie by Cliff Robertson) was out because he was an easy mark; Bogdanovich (portrayed under another name by Roger Rees), a cliché; and Stratten (Mariel Hemingway), too innocent. Only Snider, brilliantly acted by Eric Roberts, got to him.

“I somehow identified with him,” says Fosse, careful to pick the right words, “because he was trying to get in. It’s not that I’ve been excluded that much, but I know that sense of them all knowing something I don’t know. And that makes me very angry. I’d like to be offered all of Hollywood’s perks, just so I could refuse them. To this day, I get nervous when I have to see the big shots at the studios. Even though they’re pretty schmucky guys, it’s like being called to the principal’s office.”

If the Rodeo Drive set, fronted by their secretaries in triplicate, frightens Fosse, it is not surprising that Fosse inserted a scene in the film showing Snider becoming angry at himself for screwing up the first time he meets Hefner. Yet the similarity points out the difference between Snider and Fosse. Snider had every reason to feel insecure with someone so powerful; Fosse does not.

“I know it’s strange,” he concedes. “I can run a whole movie, make decisions that have to do with millions of dollars, and yet I feel very childish and immature inside. I know they need talented people. And as long as I can produce, they’ll be after me.”

If there is one thing that can be said of Bob Fosse, it is that he can produce. He has had one of the most remarkable careers in show business. In 1973, he did something no director had done before or since. He bagged the directorial hat trick with an Oscar for Cabaret, a Tony for Pippin and an Emmy for Liza with a Z. You can’t get anymore “in” than that.

But Fosse’s not buying. He clutches his insecurities for security. It is easier to endure the speculation that the vote for him was a vote against another award for Francis Coppola, who had cleaned up with The Godfather that year. But his awards pile up too high for them all to be explained away. Fosse has six other Tonys for choreographing such Broadway hits as The Pajama Game (1955), Damn Yankees (1956), Sweet Charity (1966) and Dancin’ (1978). And almost incidental in this sparkling array were several Tony nominations for his other Broadway hits and two Oscar nominations for directing Lenny and All That Jazz.

Beyond awards, Fosse has had a lasting impact on the way movie musicals are made. In Cabaret, for the first time, the fanciful staple of performers suddenly breaking into song while talking on the telephone or eating in a restaurant was dropped. All the musical numbers took place in the realistic setting of the Kit Kat Klub. Movies like Saturday Night Fever and The Rose, both of which Fosse declined to direct, took their cues from Cabaret.

His impact on dance as a choreographer has been perhaps even stronger.

“He’s sensational,” says Gene Kelly. “What they say not to do, he does. He blends different styles, using them where they should be used, and in that way he has practically developed a style of his own.”

And it’s worked. Even though in the early days of his career, his turn-ins, shoulder looks and quick cuts punctuated by bumps and grinds shocked Broadway in Damn Yankees, they still packed them in, and the musical became an enormous hit. He displayed his own performing talent for transforming cheap into classy when he played the title role in a 1961 revival of Pal Joey, a noteworthy musical image of a Paul Snider. By 1972, no less an arbiter of conservative taste than Time magazine all but called Fosse the Balanchine of musical comedy. He continued to push his limits with his first dance review, Dancin’, and the movie All That Jazz (1979).

“It was a very innovative film in terms of dance and the use of cinematic fantasy,” says dance and theater critic Clive Barnes. “It is seminal in all those videos.” Now you can see his stuff being strutted everywhere, from Flashdance to Michael Jackson.

“He’s made a permanent contribution to dance,” Barnes continues. He sees Fosse as following the path of New York City Ballet choreographer Jerome Robbins, who gave Fosse his first break in The Pajama Game. “Fosse is post-Robbins, who was the first to see dance in terms of direction. Fosse’s dance is infused with a mixture of discipline, almost robotlike, and the ability to use great theatrical force. It’s like the irresistible force trying to come out of the immovable discipline. The resulting combination is explosive.”

Although he is not reluctant to accept credit for having had some influence on dance, the superlatives make him squirm. He has groaned his way through such recent perversions of his style as Staying Alive and wonders: “Maybe I’ve influenced them badly.” And any comparisons to Balanchine and Robbins have Fosse, the seasoned hoofer, looking over his shoulder for the drummer to help him out with a rim shot. Says Fosse: “I know I’m good, but they talk to God. When I call God, he’s always out to lunch.” Bada-bump.

False modesty? The ravings of a manic-depressive? Possibly, because Robbins is no less complimentary of Fosse. (“I’ve always been,” says Robbins, albeit in the safest of clichéd terms, “a big fan of his and still am.”) Or maybe Fosse knows that none of that glory is going to do him one bit of good the next time the shit hits the fan.

“I’m a great collector of injustices,” says Fosse. “I’ve got a whole trunkful.”

Hanging out of his baggage like dirty linen is the memory of his experience as choreographer for an antiwar musical headed for Broadway called The Conquering Hero (1961). Fosse inserted a number that had dancers dressed up as marines performing a pas de deux; not the usual pre-Vietnam Iwo Jima image. It caused an uproar that found its way into the halls of Congress, where a representative condemned Fosse for portraying marines as “homosexuals.” The producers bowed to mounting pressure and fired him. The lack of support he had with Hero hurt him badly, and he was much more sensitive when a similar situation arose two years later. Fosse had been working on Funny Girl for seven months as its director. He had put in a lot of new numbers, as well as cast Streisand in the leading role, but word got back to him that producer Ray Stark was asking about Fosse’s qualifications. That was enough for Fosse. He quit.

“He’s dangerous,” says Fosse, “and others will try to emulate him. He can be very charming, though — he thinks this is all made up. But I think he has very little sense of loyalty. If he hires me and somebody he thinks is better or has more hits becomes available, he will dump me. Later he asked me — and Jerome Robbins — back to Funny Girl. He took Robbins.”

But it was Hollywood that dealt the most serious blow to Fosse’s career. He was making his film directorial debut with the movie version of Sweet Charity for MCA’s Universal Pictures. It was the late Sixties, the era of the big movie musicals (Hello, Dolly!, Paint Your Wagon), and MCA president Lew Wasserman (now chairman) had visions of Oscars after seeing an early screening of the movie.

“Wow, Lew Wasserman,” Fosse says. He holds his head, as excited now as though it all had just happened. “The king of the empire says this is an award-winning picture.” But when the movie came out, the critics jumped all over it. Universal pulled the picture and recut it — without Fosse.

“I begged for a chance to recut it,” he says earnestly, “and they wouldn’t let me. So, to this day, I’m not sure I could work for Universal.”

That Fosse can make such a remark today shows how far he has come since Charity, but at the time, Hollywood avoided him like a carrier of that town’s most dreaded disease: failure. According to Fosse, when Cabaret came along a couple of years later, Billy Wilder, Gene Kelly and about eight other directors had to turn it down before he could get a crack at it. But Cabaret provided the cure. From then on, he was hot. The money was always there. Even some vague notion about an evening of dance produced $800,000 in 48 hours and later became one of Broadway’s longest-running hits, Dancin’. But it has been in the movies that Fosse has been best able to carve out his own visions without the nonstop razzmatazz required of musical comedy, actors changing their performances at whim and lyricists and composers fighting him for control. In Lenny, All That Jazz and now Star 80, Fosse has stuck to what he knows best: his roots. Each of his films has been played out against the backdrop of the underbelly of show business — his own career in it as well.


The Courvoisier is within easy reach on the shelving in the corner of the dining room of his New York City apartment, but you have to stand on a chair to get a look at the Oscar and the Emmys on the top shelf. At least they are all there. Some of the Tonys appear to be lost, or maybe, in Fosse’s way of thinking, they were taken back. After all, the audience is fickle, and the recognition that the awards symbolize is not permanent. The only thing that is, is the act. Like the veteran showman that he is, Fosse would rather get on stage, do his number and get off while the paying customers are still clapping or before they reach for the tomatoes. To that end, he remembers every time step along the way.

“I’ll get the scrapbooks,” he says enthusiastically.

A quick call to his secretary and two black tomes appear. They are neatly kept collections of old photos and yellowing newspaper clips, following his career as a dancer from his childhood dance classes to Broadway and Hollywood. Fosse, 56, willingly sketches in the details as we flip through the pages.

Robert Louis Fosse (after Robert Louis Stevenson) discovered early in life that entertaining was a way of getting recognized. He grew up on Chicago’s North Side in a large, colorful middle-class family of Norwegian and Irish descent. Both his parents had taken a crack at show business. His father had been in vaudeville as a song-and-dance man before settling down as a Hershey chocolate salesman, while his mother, who weighed 235 pounds, had been a spear-carrying extra in opera and played ragtime on the family piano. So at nine, when his parents gave him the chance to go to dancing school, he took it.

It was a risky move. Fosse had three older brothers, all massive oaks with chins split as if by axes. They did not appreciate their little brother, who was weak and asthmatic, coming home with tights in his schoolbag. But all that changed when Fosse started to become something of a celebrity dancing in local shows.

By 13, he was dancing professionally. But given his age and the circumstances, this period in his life was best remembered by him as an introduction to puberty blues. Fosse played the vaudeville and burlesque circuits and at gaudy theaters like the Cuban Village and the Silver Cloud, where strippers would turn him on just before he went onstage. Reciting passages from the Bible and the batting order of the Chicago Cubs did not relieve him of the effects of the strippers’ handiwork. But it was far from being all tease.

“I could go back to school,” he recalls, “and tell the guys stories that were at least 75 percent true. It gave me an edge. I had mixed feelings about it, though. I was very excited, but I wasn’t ready for sex.”

He was not ready for a lot of things, like problems with his father.

“He was like Willy Loman,” says Fosse. “Always a glad hand, always pretending to be up, but he was a very prejudiced man, and we never got along after I started asking questions that went beyond how to catch a ball. When my mother died, we found out he had been seeing another woman for years, y’know, stockings and all, just like Willy Loman.”

But having troubles with his father did not stop Fosse from trying to get along with him. He had to try. If he was a success at dancing, making as much as $150 per week, he had to be good at everything else. He became his high school’s class president and even made the swimming and track teams.

“Once I had established the standard,” he says fatefully, “I couldn’t get out of it. I was a good kid, so I had to be a good kid. You’re trapped by your own publicity.”

After serving with the navy during World War II, he began to make his mark in Broadway revues and club dates. MGM brought him out to Hollywood and began promoting him as the next Fred Astaire. The original had other plans, though, and after a few unmemorable years in Hollywood, Fosse returned to New York. Still, his California experience had not been a total loss. He had gotten to choreograph a 45-second number in the movie Kiss Me Kate, and it worked as a wedge into the upper reaches of the Broadway scene when Robbins recommended him to George Abbott, his codirector on The Pajama Game.

Fosse closes the tomes on his life as a dancer, but not on his story.

“I lied about having done a lot of choreography,” says Fosse. “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.”

After The Pajama Game, Fosse had no need to lie. He had as many offers as he could handle, and like the good kid, he never stopped working. There were losses, however, including three failed marriages. Only one played longer than a Fosse hit, an 11-year run with his favorite star, Gwen Verdon, who has remained a close friend.

“I was always happiest working,” he says. “I frequently got bored with other aspects of life. The reason Gwen and I lasted as long as we did was because we worked together so well and enjoyed it so much. The best times we had were in the rehearsal hall. If we’d never left it, we’d still be married.”

But there were compensations for broken marriages. Fosse’s affairs with beautiful models, dancers and actresses like Jessica Lange, Ann Reinking and Julie Hagerty, were liberally played out in the press.

“I like to think,” he says, “I was a pretty good-looking guy, and I cared about the women and had a good sense of humor, but also I’d be a fool if I didn’t recognize that I had a certain degree of power over them. Directors are never in short supply of girlfriends.”

So, with other women readily available, Fosse not only survived his marriages, he seemed to thrive as well. It wasn’t enough to be a choreographer. He had to be a director because they had more control. With the filming of Sweet Charity, he became one of the few directors since Busby Berkeley to handle both chores. The next hurdle was writing. Although a closet writer for years (i.e., he collected rejection slips), he hesitated to contribute openly to his movies and plays. His first major effort, albeit without a screen credit, was Lenny. Yet even with all this power, he worried constantly about motivating the actors or simply whether or not he could pull the whole thing off. He smoked four, five packs of Camels a day. Every morning, on every play, every movie, he threw up. Purged, he would do anything to get a performance from an actor — even lie. Just as Valerie Perrine, playing Honey Bruce in Lenny, was being sentenced to prison, Fosse told Perrine that her boyfriend had been killed in an airplane crash. It worked. Fosse got the expression of shock he wanted, and Perrine, who won an Oscar nomination for her performance, thought the results forgave the lie. Even her costar and the self-acknowledged director’s pain, Dustin Hoffman, accepted being driven by Fosse.

“He had me do this routine,” says Hoffman, “where Lenny is talking lickety-split. Take after take, he said: ‘Faster. Faster.’ I said nobody talks like this. I got very angry at him. It was like 20 takes. He’d break you down after a series of takes so you didn’t know which end was up and he’d get what he wanted. And he was absolutely right. He wants you to do your best. He’s an obsessed leprechaun; I think he is always sitting on your shoulder, whispering in your ear.”

Actors knew that at the end of the line, there was often at least an Oscar or Tony nomination awaiting them.

There appeared, then, to be no problem Fosse could not handle. If driving for perfection became a 24-hour-a-day trial, he could always get a little help from his friends.

“I drank Scotch,” Fosse says. “I did cocaine and a lot of Dexedrine. I’d wake up in the morning, pop a pill. After lunch, when I couldn’t get going, I’d pop another one, and if I wanted to work all night, still another one. There was a certain romanticism about that stuff. There was Bob drinking and smoking and turning out good work. Still popping and screwing around with the girls. ‘Isn’t it terrific macho behavior,’ they said. I probably thought I was indestructible.”

He wasn’t. While editing Lenny in 1974 and at the same time rehearsing the Broadway musical Chicago, he had a heart attack. It was almost like wish-fulfillment.

“I always thought,” he says, “this was the way to do important things. If you’re not willing to put your life on the line, how can you do important things?”

Foolishly, it seems, where Lenny and Chicago were concerned. But it was just the kind of boffo self-destructive act to inspire a movie that until then had a boring work, work, work scenario.

In Fosse’s very personal film, All That Jazz, which made all the stops in his life from strippers to heart attack, he opted for a big operating-room production number with fan dancers and a finale that knocks him dead. In real life, he played it for laughs and a successful triple-bypass operation. One rip-roaring scene has Fosse’s close friends, writers Herb Gardner (A Thousand Clowns) and the late Paddy Chayefsky (Network), visiting him before the operation. Fosse and his guests alight on a solution for settling an old beef. They have discovered that they can measure precisely who is better at making Fosse laugh by using the cardiogram as a laugh meter. Both contestants register well, but the duel is declared a no-contest when Fosse’s nurse throws out Gardner and Chayefsky before it is over. The operation finale made this comedy-drama a big hit and, of course, it is still running, but Fosse gives it mixed reviews.

“I always thought,” he says regretfully, “I’d be dead by 25. I wanted to be. I thought it was romantic. I thought people would mourn me: ‘Oh, that young career.'”

Ah, sweet death. It forgives failure and recalls only promise. It is an obvious solution to a host of problems, from throwing up in the morning to breaking free of your limitations. It is great theater. Fosse had the whole thing figured out. Before the operation, he had a clause in his will that would set aside $20,000 for a funeral party at his favorite Broadway restaurant. There would be guest speakers, and his Pippin producer, Stuart Ostrow, would see to it that the party had the élan of a première and a quick fade to black.


Lights! Action! Self-absorption! Bob Fosse’s primary source for what’s really going on in his films is indeed himself. And his inward camera eye is always open, looking for ways to transfer what he sees to his work. Struck with an advanced case of Freudian Thanatos blues? Use it. Want to be like Peter Pan forever (“To die would be such a great adventure”)? Use it. Play out your problems enough times on the screen and you might find some solutions. If not, it can at least help you pay for your psychiatrist (Fosse had more than five years of analysis before chucking it).

Whatever it is, Fosse saves it from being pure ego-tripping by staring at it with rare intensity and perception. He is a war correspondent reporting from the front. If the front happens to be in his territory, as it was in All That Jazz, so much the better. It cuts down on the traveling, and Fosse prefers staying close to home. From there, he can easily roam through neighboring psychic landscapes, where he can maybe watch a comic (Lenny) or a small-time hustler (Star 80) disintegrate.

“I think they are romantic pictures,” he. says. “I have an aversion to sentimentality. When I pull away, people mistake it for coldness and indifference. I think it is just an avoidance of movies that are sly and not genuine.”

While sentimental pap is the movie spirit of the day in everything from E.T. to Gandhi, there is nevertheless nothing original in Fosse’s grittier choices. He is a great adapter. While his film Sweet Charity was adapted from his play, the play was patterned after Fellini’s The Nights of Cabiria. Cabaret and Lenny came from Broadway. Even All That Jazz had its roots elsewhere. Again, one has to look to Fellini. This time, 8 1/2.

“When I steal,” Fosse cracks, “I steal from the best.”

But when he does, he makes it his own. In his first show, The Pajama Game, he handed dancer Carol Haney a black derby and sent her out to perform the show-stopping number “Steam Heat.” It became Fosse’s signature, and no one remembered or perhaps ever knew that the old vaudevillian hoofer Joe Frisco had inspired it.

Once Fosse puts his stamp on a project, it takes on the acidic flavor of a twentieth-century tragic novel. As with the works of Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck, Fosse’s characters and the world they inhabit are riddled with flaws. And following their lead, Fosse, a self-styled depressive, agonizes over the imperfections he sees everywhere — most of all in himself. For example, his All That Jazz alter ego is a Gatsby in show business, a sophisticated individual in a meretricious society.

But Fosse runs into serious trouble when one realizes that the people wrought 20 feet high on the screen are drawn from real lives. An actual open-heart operation was used for All That Jazz. It was not a well-received scene. Lenny Bruce died, slumped over the toilet, of an overdose of drugs. And Paul Snider did kill Dorothy Stratten and himself. The inescapable facts of wasted lives portrayed on the giant screen can have a gratuitously chilling effect.

“Sure, I want to say something,” he says. “In Star 80, I’d like to hope I’ve expressed my ambivalence toward Hollywood. It’s very attractive and very ugly. It can destroy lives. But I really try to entertain, too. I keep the movies as short as possible. I keep the pace going. In Star 80, I tried to make it like a musical, with one slow scene, then a staccato scene. I put in moments of sheer entertainment just to break the tension.”

In juggling real and reel life, Fosse walks a thin line between truth and sensationalism, between entertainment and voyeurism. But Fosse must love the balancing act, because he has always been so successful at it. So he is continually putting it to the test in hopes of getting more out of it. Make it more dangerous. Take away the net. Look, Ma, no hands.

Not everyone is applauding this bravura performance. Hefner is not pleased. The movie “mocks” the Playboy family, he has told Fosse, and insinuates a link between Playboy and a monster of sex and violence. Bogdanovich keeps his own counsel but has not exactly left Fosse with the impression that he has won a new fan. Fosse is upset over their reactions and frets about possible lawsuits.

Fosse would be loathe to live out Rashomon in court, especially when he refused to do so in the film, so it is a touch ironic that he is so sensitive to the similarities between Hemingway and Stratten. Both got noticed because of their innocence, but their success grew out of their ambitions. Although the film does not show it, Stratten got headaches from starving herself to keep her voluptuous figure under control. Hemingway, who revealed her gloriously perfected physique in Personal Best, nevertheless apparently felt inadequate. Her career needed something. The answer was breast implants. Before the operation, she had pursued Fosse tenaciously.

“I hadn’t worked,” she says candidly, “since Personal Best.”

Still, he turned her down. After the operation, she got the part. Although he says he had nothing to do with her decision, Fosse defends it: “If anybody can make themselves feel better, why not?”

The answer may lie in Star 80. There is a scene in which Hefner and an assistant — a woman, no less — are looking at photos of prospective centerfolds. It is an unflattering but realistic picture of an assembly-line selection process. The final product is an illusion created by cosmeticians, surgeons, photographers and publicists. It is made particularly unappealing by the fact that this routine labor is portrayed as happening at the same time one of its finest products, Stratten, is being destroyed. Held up to Fosse’s camera, Hemingway’s illusion would be viewed in the same light.

“They sure are hard,” he laughs nervously, then turning brutally honest, adds: “I hope that’s not what people talk about, that she has new tits.

“If Marilyn Monroe had come along, I think we would be talking about Marilyn Monroe. If you go on a casting trip sometime, you’ll see she’s just not around, and Mariel did have that innocence.”

Saving her innocence — at least in the film — seems to be the final trick in Fosse’s act. At the same time the camera is revealing Snider pulling down around him the illusions created by the Playboy centerfold and a host of Hollywood dreams, it is working intently at preserving Hemingway’s illusion as Stratten. At the end of the movie, we are left with a powerful vision of all the losses and a feeling of being drained.

“I’ve never been able,” says Fosse with an air of resignation, “to just enjoy the moment. When I see two people in love, my mind thinks, this isn’t going to last.”

The moment now is the satisfaction of having completed Star 80. The movie is over for him, and if there was some reason why he was willing to commit three years of his life to making Star 80, he is not so sure what it was or at least is not as sure as he was then. Call it self-fulfilling; call it exhaustion. Either way, the thrill is gone. Yet in a sense, it is liberating, and he seems to have survived better than in the past. After Jazz, he had to check himself into a hospital because of the pressures of the movie and drinking.

This time, sitting on the patio of his Long Island home on a perfect fall day, there is nothing stronger on the table than iced tea. He has given up cigarettes for an occasional small cigar and has been living faithfully with a 25-year-old stunner named Liz Canney, a film production assistant, for three years. He seems almost embarrassed that he cannot offer a picture of his time-worn image of drinking, popping, snorting and womanizing. Except for the lingering stereophonic smoker’s hack, it is almost hard to imagine he ever did. But if the new image is that of someone who has beaten back all the demons, Fosse is, as always, hedging his bets.

“I have an addictive personality,” he says, “and have lived most of my life in excess.”

So he turns down dinner invitations lest he drink too much, and he stays away from people who offer him drugs. They are everywhere.

“I see so many cokeheads in the industry,” he says, “right up to the projectionist, and it starts to affect their work and how they think. But I love cocaine, so I really have to stay away from it.” He may slide back, but he is no fool. There are limits.

“He adores a certain sense of danger,” says Ann Reinking, still Fosse’s friend. “But he couldn’t do the work he does if he were the glutton he thinks he is.”

He escapes by spending weekends at his Long Island home. It is an ideal retreat, spacious and open to an inlet that leads to the ocean. Like his New York City apartment, it is sparsely furnished and decorated with memorabilia and posters from Fosse’s plays and movies. The new dance studio gives him an excuse to stay away from the city longer. Maybe too long.

“It is painful,” he says, “for me to go into my studio. You look in the mirrors and your spirit is in the air, but your body is on the ground like a little toad with broken legs.”

And he wonders if he is not missing something.

“I am trying to remain faithful,” he says. “I have a wonderful girl now. At times, I miss the excitement of seeing new girls, those first couple of months when everybody is on their best behavior, when they are very funny and witty and they don’t snore, belch or pick their noses.”

But the old ways were no better. The relationships soon picked up the same smells. He could sense a mile away he was in for the same disappointments. Trapped? Can anything last?

Work is the steadiest force in his life. He is already considering new projects. Richard Pryor wants Fosse to direct him in The Charlie Parker Story. Fosse would seem like an ideal choice. No one knows this battle-front better: Parker was the incomparable jazz saxophonist whose drinking and drug habit led to his death at 34.

If Fosse has been less self-destructive, it is because he has a tremendous sense that time is running out. No one in his family has yet reached retirement age. Heart attacks killed them all.

“Given my family history,” he says, “I figure I’ve got two or three projects I can do. I want to make something that will look good in 20 years.”

He is looking down now, talking softly. Then he looks up, smiling, perhaps realizing that Fosse the war correspondent is growing a touch sentimental, and says with a showman’s twinkle: “What’ll happen is I’ll probably die in some hospital with no glory at all. No theatrics. A B-death. But who’s going to direct it? I don’t trust any of them.”

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