Joel Grey won an Academy Award for his performance as the Emcee in the film version of the musical Cabaret (1972), a role he had won a Tony Award for in the original 1966 Broadway production.
In his amazing memoir Master Of Ceremonies (2017), Grey writes that director Bob Fosse didn’t want him for the film. Fosse’s choice to play the role was… Ruth Gordon! Gordon had won an Oscar as the sweetly sinister Satan worshipper in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and was much in demand.
Fosse didn’t want to use anything or anyone from the Broadway production, except for the score. Sally Bowles went from being a Brit to an American; the male lead was changed from an American named Cliff to an Englishman named Brian. Screenwriters Jay Presson Allen and Hugh Wheeler went back to the original stories to restore the subplot about the gigolo and the Jewish heiress. They also drew on the writer of the source material Christopher Isherwood’s openness about his gayness to make the main male character, a writer based on Isherwood, a bisexual who shares his bed with a male lover and Bowles. Fosse also decided to put the focus on the Kit Kat Klub, where Bowles performs, as a metaphor for the decadence of Germany in the 1930s by eliminating the musical numbers performed outside the club. The only outside number from the stage version is Tomorrow Belongs To Me in one of the film’s most chilling scenes. It is also the only song not sung by Grey, Minnelli or the Kit Kat Girls. The show’s original songwriters, John Kander and Fred Ebb, wrote two new songs, Mein Herr and Money, and added a song they had composed in 1964 for Kaye Ballard, Maybe This Time.
Distraught that he was not being considered for the role he had created, Grey called his agent Sam Cohn, who also represented Fosse. Cohn replied: ”You know how it goes, at first they always want to reinvent the wheel. ‘Is Clint Eastwood available?’ ‘What if we offer it to Kirk Douglas?”’
Producer Cy Feuer and Allied Artists still wanted Grey. Fosse stood his ground and responded: ”It’s either me or Joel Grey”. They said: ”Then it’s Joel Grey.”
Fosse was less than kind to Grey at the first rehearsal. He asked Grey to do a back flip. Grey was terrified. Fosse told him there was nothing to it and demonstrated, landing on his face. Fosse went to the hospital and never spoke about back flips again.
”He wanted to control everything, but I couldn’t let him. I knew this character inside and out, and I was the keeper of the original musical. I had to stand up for it. I think he knew I was going to keep an eye on him.”
It was a tense shoot on location in Germany. Fosse choregraphed his dancers every move, right down to elbows, thumbs, head turns, even when to take a breath. He wanted Grey and the Kit Kat Klub dancers to be a polished company.
”Fosse was a martinet, and the dancers loved him, because he was so good. But I’m a different kind of actor. I like to try new things, keep it fresh. And we weren’t supposed to be neat, perfect performers. We were supposed to be doing second-rate nightclub stuff. We were supposed to be crappy.”
Throughout the shoot, Fosse never once gave Grey encouragement. He wouldn’t socialize with him. Yet, sometimes Grey would do a take and see that Fosse was smiling.
Then came their big battle. During a scene in which the Kit Kat Girls mud wrestled, Grey, embracing spontaneity, stuck his finger in the mud and smeared a bit of it on his upper lip, saying ”Heil Hitler!” and giving the Nazi salute. Fosse screamed at Grey and stormed off the set.
Grey saw a screening of the film several months later. Fosse had edited all of Grey’s musical numbers to bits and snippets. With no dialogue, his performance was now just a cameo. Furious, Grey called the producers. They told him not to worry, his songs would be restored in the final cut.
When the film had its premiere Grey’s big numbers: Willkommen, Two Ladies, If You Could See Her Through My Eyes were intact. And, surprise: the smear of mud on Grey’s upper lip and his ”Heil Hitler!” were also in the film.