Fosse was born in Chicago, Illinois, to a Norwegian American father, Cyril K. Fosse, and Irish-born mother, Sara Alice Fosse (née Stanton), the second youngest of six. He teamed up with Charles Grass, another young dancer, and began a collaboration under the name The Riff Brothers. They toured theatres throughout the Chicago area. After being recruited, Fosse was placed in the variety show Tough Situation, which toured military and naval bases in the Pacific. Fosse moved to New York with the ambition of being the new Fred Astaire. His appearance with his first wife and dance partner Mary Ann Niles (1923–1987) in Call Me Mister brought him to the attention of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Fosse and Niles were regular performers on Your Hit Parade during its 1950-51 season, and during this season Martin and Lewis caught their act in New York's Pierre Hotel and scheduled them to appear on the Colgate Comedy Hour. Fosse was signed to a MGM contract in 1953. His early screen appearances included Give A Girl A Break, The Affairs of Dobie Gillis and Kiss Me Kate, all released in 1953. A short sequence that he choreographed in the latter (and danced with Carol Haney) brought him to the attention of Broadway producers.
Although Fosse's acting career in film was cut short by typecasting, he was reluctant to move from Hollywood to theatre. Nevertheless, he made the move, and in 1954, he choreographed his first musical, The Pajama Game, followed by George Abbott's Damn Yankees in 1955. It was while working on the latter show that he first met the redheaded rising star whom he was to marry in 1960, Gwen Verdon. Verdon won her first Tony Award for Best Actress in Damn Yankees (she had won previously for best supporting actress in Can-Can). (Fosse appears in the film version of Damn Yankees, which he also choreographed, in which Verdon reprises her stage triumph as "Lola"; they partner each other in the mambo number, "Who's Got the Pain".) In 1957 Fosse choreographed New Girl in Town, also directed by Abbott, and Verdon won her second Leading Actress Tony. That year he also choreographed the film version of "Pajama Game" starring Doris Day. In 1960, Fosse was, for the first time, both director and choreographer of a musical called simply Redhead.
With Redhead, Verdon won her third Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical; the show won the Tony for best musical and Fosse carried off the award for best choreography. Fosse was to partner star Verdon as her director/choreographer again with Sweet Charity and again with Chicago. (Fosse was to win the Tony for Best Direction of a Musical in 1973 with Pippin.) Fosse performed a memorable song and dance number in Stanley Donen's 1974 film version of The Little Prince, and in 1977, Fosse had a small role in the romantic comedy Thieves.Notable distinctions of Fosse's style included the use of turned-in knees, sideways shuffling, rolled shoulders, and jazz hands. With Astaire as an influence, he used props such as bowler hats, canes and chairs. His trademark use of hats was influenced by his own self-consciousness. According to Martin Gottfried in his biography of Fosse, "His baldness was the reason that he wore hats, and was doubtless why he put hats on his dancers." He used gloves in his performances because he did not like his hands. Some of his most popular numbers include "Steam Heat" (The Pajama Game) and "Big Spender" (Sweet Charity). The "Rich Man's Frug" scene in Sweet Charity is another example of his signature style. Although he was replaced as the director/choreographer for the short-lived 1961 musical The Conquering Hero, he quickly took on the job of choreographer of the 1961 musical hit How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which starred Robert Morse.
Fosse directed five feature films. His first, Sweet Charity in 1969, starring Shirley MacLaine, is an adaptation of the Broadway musical he had directed and choreographed. Fosse shot the film largely on location in Manhattan. His second film, Cabaret, won eight Academy Awards, including Best Director, which he won over Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather starring Marlon Brando. The film was shot on location in Berlin; Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey both won Oscars for their roles.
Fosse went on to direct Lenny in 1974, a biopic of comic Lenny Bruce starring Dustin Hoffman. The film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director Oscars, among other awards. However, just as Fosse picked up his Oscar for Cabaret, his Tony for Pippin, and an Emmy for directing Liza Minnelli's television concert, Liza with a Z, his health suffered and he underwent open-heart surgery. In 1979, Fosse co-wrote and directed a semi-autobiographical film All That Jazz, which portrayed the life of a womanizing, drug-addicted choreographer-director in the midst of triumph and failure. All That Jazz won four Academy Awards, earning Fosse his third Oscar nomination for Best Director. It also won the Palme d'Or at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival. In the summer and fall of 1980, working with All That Jazzexecutive producer Daniel Melnick, He commissioned documentary research for a follow-up feature having to do with the motivations that compel people to become performers, but he found the results uninspiring and abandoned the project.
In All That Jazz, Fosse not only toyed with the notion of his own death, but immortalized the two people who would perpetuate the Fosse legacy, Gwen Verdon and Ann Reinking. Reinking appears in the film as the protagonist's lover/protégé/domestic-partner. She, like Verdon, would be responsible for keeping Fosse's trademark choreography alive after Fosse's death. Reinking played the role of Roxie Hart in the highly successful New York revival of Chicago, which opened in 1996. She choreographed the dances "in the style of Bob Fosse" for that revival, which is still running on Broadway as of June 2013. In 1999, Verdon served as artistic consultant on a plotless Broadway musical designed to showcase examples of classic Fosse choreography. Called simply Fosse, the three-act musical revue was conceived and directed by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Ann Reinking and choreographed by Reinking and Chet Walker. Verdon and Fosse's daughter, Nicole, received a "special thanks" credit. The show won a Tony for best musical. Many credit him with being the sole engineer of Michael Jackson's career for his work on The Little Prince (1974), saying that Jackson may have copied Fosse's choreography and the wardrobe Fosse's character had in that film. In many ways Fosse is credited as the indirect innovator of the careers of many dancers around the world.His final film, 1983's Star 80, was a controversial biopic about slain Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten. The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning article on the same topic. The film was nominated for several awards, and was screened out of competition at the 34th Berlin International Film Festival. In 1986 he directed, wrote, and choreographed the Broadway production of Big Deal. Although nominated for five Tony awards, and winning for best choreography, the production closed after only 69 performances.
Fosse was an innovative choreographer and had multiple achievements in his life. For Damn Yankees, he took a great deal of inspiration from the "father of theatrical jazz dance", Jack Cole. He also took influence from Jerome Robbins. New Girl in Town gave Fosse the inspiration to direct and choreograph his next piece because of the conflict of interest within the collaborators. During that piece, Redhead, the first he had directed as well as choreographed, Fosse utilized one of the first ballet sequences in a show that contained five different styles of dance; Fosse's jazz, a cancan, a gypsy dance, a march, and an old-fashioned English music hall number. Fosse utilized the idea of subtext and gave his dancers something to think about during their numbers. He also began the trend of allowing lighting to influence his work and direct the audience's attention to certain things. During Pippin, Fosse made the first ever television commercial for a Broadway show.
In 1957, both Verdon and Fosse were studying with Sanford Meisner to develop a better acting technique for themselves. According to Michael Joosten, Fosse once said: "The time to sing is when your emotional level is too high to just speak anymore, and the time to dance is when your emotions are just too strong to only sing about how you "feel."