By Barbara Rowes
March 03, 1980 12:00 PM

The first sound the audience hears is a hacking cough. Then a cassette player is flicked on to baroque music. A few drops of Visine for road-map eyes, a handful of Dexedrine for fuzzy brain and a couple of Alka-Seltzers for queasy stomach. A pounding shower, with ever-present cigarette. Morning ablutions over, the slight, pale figure sneaks a look at the haggard face in the mirror. Not much improvement. He shrugs and smiles. “It’s showtime, folks!”

The face belongs to actor Roy Scheider, and the scene is up there on the 40-foot screen, but it has been played out countless times in director Bob Fosse’s life. The familiar disclaimer—”Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental”—at the end of Fosse’s new movie, All That Jazz, is not to be taken seriously. It isn’t coincidence that Fosse and his main character, Joe Gideon, are both director-choreographers who smoke, drink and sleep around to vulgar excess. Both have adolescent daughters from failed marriages. Fosse suffered at least three heart attacks in 1974; Gideon has three in the movie. Condemned by some critics as self-indulgent and praised by others (including PEOPLE) for its imaginativeness and style, All That Jazz is almost totally autobiographical.

Fosse claims, “So many things are fictitious. So many things have been elaborated upon.” But at the very least it is a commercial rendition of the man, his skeleton painted in neon. A onetime girlfriend, dancer Ann Reinking, who plays herself in the movie, says emphatically, “It’s Bob’s story. It’s all there.” Where do life and art diverge? Joe Gideon dies at the end of All That Jazz, while Fosse is still alive and high-kicking. But at 52, after open-heart surgery, he knows better than most that life is a limited engagement.

Because of this awareness of his mortality, Fosse seems to have begun writing his own epitaph. All That Jazz is part of it. So is Dancin’, a show that has played on Broadway since March 1978. It is a daring conceit—a musical with no book, few lyrics and an unabashed celebration of the art from tap to jazz to ballet. “Who knows?” Fosse asked just before it opened two years ago. “This may be my final comeback—Fosse’s farewell musical.”

He is motivated by fear. “Fear of failure,” Fosse says. Lying in his hospital bed in All That Jazz, Joe Gideon is told by a friend that he is haunted by “the dreadful fear that you’re ordinary, not special.” Fosse understands the phobia. Currently he is choreographing a ballet, which he confesses “I’ve postponed a long time. I’m frightened of it, but then I don’t know if you can exist without some fear. It’s always there. Am I good enough? Can I do it?”

For someone like Fosse, a maverick coming out of vaudeville, nightclubs and strip joints, ballet is the quintessence of his art. “I think of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins,” he says. “Those men are choreographers; they’re giants.” While Fosse has dabbled with “five-or 10-minute things” on Broadway, he has promised his first full-length work to the Joffrey Ballet. “I’ve been looking forward to it for years,” acknowledges director Robert Joffrey, “but it’s a bit like waiting for Godot.”

Fosse’s need to leave a final statement may arise from the fact that he is at the top of his profession. In 1973 he scored an unprecedented hat trick for direction, winning an Oscar for Cabaret, an Emmy for Liza with a “Z” and a Tony for Pippin. After that, he was riding for the inevitable fall. In October 1974, as he frantically edited the film Lenny and rehearsed the Broadway-bound show Chicago, Fosse suffered his first heart attack. Others followed as he lay in New York Hospital.

Writers Herb Gardner and Paddy Chayefsky, two old friends, were visiting Fosse in the hospital when he asked them to witness his will. Gardner signed immediately but Chayefsky pored over the document, saying he never signed anything he hadn’t read first. Finally he turned to the patient and declared, “There’s nothing for me in here.” Fosse mumbled something about taking care of his own family, and Chayefsky tossed the will at him, bellowing, “F—- you, live!”

Four months later Fosse was back indulging his passions for work and women. “All I need,” he says, “is a rehearsal studio and bedroom—preferably attached. I could spend all my time going from one to the other.” In the studio, Fosse is a taskmaster, expecting of others what he demands of himself. Reinking recalls 16-hour days on the set of All That Jazz. “All of us were falling apart,” she says, “but the work keeps him alive.” A notorious perfectionist, Fosse can be brutal in his criticism if he feels dancers are not giving their all. “He goes for the jugular,” confirms one. “I prefer to forget those times. They don’t happen often, but when they do they’re ugly.” At the end of the filming, the cast presented him with a sweat shirt that read “One More, Please.”

Sex plays a part in every Fosse production. He admits to choosing dancers who turn him on. “You can assume he’s going to try to make you,” reveals a corps member. “He tries with every girl and gets a fair percentage. He’s so casual. He doesn’t give you much respect.” He is constantly helping the female dancers with their positions, working their legs apart with his hands, wrapping his arms around them to get their hips just so. “He’s not easily discouraged,” says one of his targets. “If you tell him you’re engaged, he keeps asking if the wedding hasn’t been called off.”

“Sex, sex, sex,” cries a character in All That Jazz. “Is that all he ever thinks about?” Fosse has taken dancing’s implicit sexuality and made it explicit. His trademark pelvic thrusts and parries, undulating shoulders and hips, the cool backward lean are blatantly erotic. When asked to explain his style—that suggestive lean, for instance—Fosse shrugs, “I have bad posture.”

In the movie, Fosse’s alter ego submits to a word-association test. “Women?” he is asked. “Hope,” he replies. It apparently springs eternal for the thrice-married Fosse, who will call a corps member at three or four in the morning softly pleading for companionship. He separated from his third wife, Gwen Verdon, in 1971 (they are still not divorced) and since then has had a six-year on-and-off romance with Reinking, a year’s fling with actress Jessica Lange (also in All That Jazz), and lately he has been living with a young actress-model named Julie Hagerty.

More word association: “Family” triggers “screwed up.” Fosse says he was married to “sparklers” and “in each case my contribution to the failure of the marriage was paramount.” His only child (by Verdon) is his delight: 16-year-old Nicole’s picture is hung all over his midtown Manhattan apartment. He recalls that after a couple of years of marriage he and Gwen had failed to have a baby. The diagnosis: Fosse had “slow sperm.” He chuckles at the irony. As soon as they began adoption proceedings, Verdon became pregnant. “It’s a sure cure,” says the proud father.

Robert Louis Fosse (he was named for Stevenson, his parents’ favorite author) grew up on the North Side of Chicago, the son of a Hershey chocolate salesman. The fifth of six children, Bob claims, “I was the good one. On my birthday my father used to take me around to all the soda shops for sundaes.” His mother once sold magazines over the phone and before her marriage had worked as a telegrapher. “She had very strong fingers,” remembers Fosse. “My mother never gave you a spanking. She just flipped her fingers across your forehead and you went flying across the room.”

At 9, he accompanied his sister to dancing school. She dropped out after a few weeks but he stayed on. By 13 he was dancing in tails for $3 a show and two years later was billed as Chicago’s Youngest MC. “I used to come home after school,” he says of those years, “do my homework, then go to my performance, go to bed at 3 a.m. and then get up in time for class.”

After graduating from high school (where he was on the honor roll and president of his class), Fosse enlisted in the Navy, but World War II ended while he was still in boot camp. He was sent to the South Pacific with an entertainment troupe and two years after his discharge landed a dancing part in the national company of Call Me Mister. Another dancer in the show, Mary Ann Niles, became the first Mrs. Fosse. They split up after two years, during which, Fosse says, “We got jobs as a second-rate Marge and Gower Champion.” Finally they both wound up in a Broadway revue, Dance Me a Song. “The play flopped,” says Fosse, “and our marriage flopped. Maybe it was one and the same.”

Fosse moved into a 35c-a-day room in a men’s residence and bicycled between dance and acting classes. His break came during the 1952 Broadway revival of Pal Joey when Jerome Robbins saw a dance he had choreographed for cast members who were staging an off-hours show. After a brief acting stint in Hollywood and an equally brief second marriage, to dancer Joan McCracken, Fosse was hired to choreograph The Pajama Game on Robbins’ recommendation. The show won him the first of eight Tonys.

Fosse met Gwen Verdon in Damn Yankees in 1955. He was the choreographer and she the star. They were married five years later. “The best times we ever had together were in rehearsals,” says Fosse. “And then, when we weren’t rehearsing for a while, when we weren’t working…” His voice trails off. They remain close. Gwen visited Fosse every day during his hospitalization, starred for him in Chicago and worked as a choreographic assistant on Dancin’. The phone at her apartment is answered by the maid, “Mrs. Fosse’s residence.”

Her estranged husband’s pace has barely slackened since his dance with death. He takes medicine for angina but also smokes four to five packs of cigarettes a day. He has cut back slightly on his drinking and seriously on his pretzels and remains thin—137 pounds on a 5’8″ frame. Fosse occasionally escapes to a summer house on eastern Long Island—but never for more than a weekend.

As the long-awaited ballet takes shape in his mind—each day he paces his 31st-floor apartment, inventing steps—the master of American jazz dancing seeks out other projects, like a film or Broadway show. Without question, Fosse is living out the philosophy of the late aerialist Karl Wallenda, which the choreographer chose as the introduction to All That Jazz: “To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting.”