THERE'S A gag going around," says Bob Foose, pacing his mid-Manhattan apartment above the green turrets of the Plaza Hotel and the gray tundra of Central Park, "that I promised to die before the general release of this picture."

It's easy to see why this might appeal to Twentieth Century-Fox and Columbia Pictures, who have about $10 million, between them, riding on the fortunes of "All That Jazz." The symmetry would be irresistible: The film is about an obsessive director-choreographer who suffers a heart attack while rehearsing a Broadway musical (starring his ex-wife), refuses to stop smoking or rectify his other appalling health habits, and, in a spectacularly surreal song-and-dance finale, dies.

Foose, who made the film, is an obsessive director/choreographer who suffered a heart attack while rehearsing a Broadway musical ("Chicago," starring his ex-wife, Gwen Verdon), has paid less than strict attention to doctors' warnings about cigarettes and other health matters, and remains alive. A bit messy, that last discrepancy.

But the studio executives can't say Fosse hasn't tried to make "All That Jazz" a posthumous work. Four-and-a-half years after his heart attack, he is still dangling a characteristic cigarette from his mouth, still coughing horribly, and still fretting over every detail of every current project (two of which are about to open in Washington -- "All That Jazz" at the Uptown and other area theaters Friday, and the stage musical "Dancin'" at the National Theater March 19th.)

Why does a man like Foose become so monomaniacal about his art? Why does a man like Joe Gideon, the hero of "All That Jazz," down amphetamines like mints -- and even tell his suspicious pre-teenager daughter that that's why they are? ("Can I have one?" she asks. "No, you wouldn't like it," he replies.) Why would someone abuse his colleagues, his friends and himself, and wind up with the perpetually bloodshot eyes that are a reccurring, and harrowing, visual theme in the movie?

"Fear of failure," says Foose, who, at 52, has made a successful mid-career switch from Broadway musicals ("The Pajama Game," "Damn Yankees," "Little Me," "Pippin") to movies ("Sweet Charity," "Cabaret," "Lenny"). "Fear of failure and a desire to create something that will last for a little while. For me personally it's the fear that I have to work harder than other people, that I'm not good enough. . . ."

In New York and Los Angeles, where "All That Jazz" opened in December, making it eligible for the Academy Awards, Fosse has been criticized for creating an "egotistical" and "self-indulgent" work, although the intense, mesmerizing dance sequences have been widely praised. The nay-sayers have said an especially emphatic nay about the wide-screen, closeup sight of the hero's chest being sawed open for heart surgery. But the director and co-author of this unusually personal opus, dressed in his traditional black T-shirt and cuffed bluejeans, sitting nervously in a small, visually hectic apartment jammed with gizmos and memorabilia, sounds anything but full of himself.

"I'm basically a showman," he says, his gold-tinted glasses dangling from his neck. "I don't want to make a movie that no one goes to see or that's basically a cult movie. At these prices, you can't do that any more. Besides, in five years everybody will forget if this picture was semi-autobiographical or not and they'll just look at it as a movie. They only know anything about me in New York and Los Angeles. Who cares, really? It's not that important what's ture and what's no true."

The mixed reviews have hurt, although, "you think they're not going to hurt," he says. "But the picture's doing very well where it's playing. . . . Choreography is an obscure occupation, but a lot of people identify with that sense of being driven. It seems to get to people who are doormen and cabdrivers and that sort of thing. If what I hear as feedback is any example, then more people relate to it than the critics think."

"I don't know what 'self-indulgent' means," says Foose, crossing from his couch to remove a defective leaf from a large tree by the window. His apartment is a fidgeter's dream, decorated to the nines with old posters, dolls, pillows, plants, picturesque neon signs from his movies and musicals, and the famous Foose hat collection draped on the limbs of a shiny white rack.

"I sure was trying. I don't know. Maybe they're correct. If self-indulgent means giving in to one's desires, my desire was certainly to make that kind of movie, so maybe I was self-indulgent. I used the same techniques a novelist would use, and I'm taking a beating for it. I don't know how you can't draw on your own life and fictionalize it. But I've been up and down so many times that I just take the lumps."

"All That Jazz" grew specifically out of a project that Fosse commissioned journalist/dramastic Robert Alan Aurthur to write -- an adaptation of a novel called "Ending" by Hilma Wolizer. It grew generally out of the characteristic Fosse itch to break new ground. When Fosse had his heart attack, Aurthur began visiting him regularly in the hospital and, says Fosse, "We started saying, 'Maybe there's a movie here.'" So they dropped the other project -- which also dealth with death -- and went to work on the story of Joe Gideon, told from his hospital bed in flashbacks, flash-forwards and extravagant musical dream sequences featuring Ben Vereen, and army of fan-dancers and Jessica Lange as the Angel of Death.

Columbia Pictures had okayed the project to the tune of $7-million, according to Fosse, but when it began to take longer and cost more than the studio had bargained for, the studio hierarchy developed bad vibes. Columbia told Fosse to assemble a releasable product from the film already shot. Instead, he and executive producers Daniel Melnick took their daily rushes to Fox, looking for a few millions more. And given 24 hours to make a decision, Fox agreed.

"Since then, however, I've gotten letters from Columbia executives saying that they're very sorry they made that deal," says Fosse.

Lighting a fresh cigarette, he explains that he has stopped twice since his doctors advised him to, but "it's so tied in with my work, it's very difficult." Interviews -- "not my favorite thing" -- don't make it any easier.

"Dancers smoke a lot," says Fosse, who became interested in dancing because there was a dancing school a block-and-a-half from his parents' house in Chicago. "I don't know why. As soon as you call a five-minute break or a 10-minute break, they all head for a pack of cigarettes. I'm always shocked how they abuse themseleves. A lot of them stay out very late." Younger dancers "smoke grass -- that's the difference," he says, adding an immediate apology fo the losseness of the generalization.

As for the other drugs that figure in the movie, "This may shock people, but I think drugs used with restraint can be a great help. Amphetamines speed up cortic activity. That's proven. They make you think faster. I don't think they make an untalented person talented, but they can give you the energy you have to have if you're going to work 14 of 16 hours a day."

So it is in a tone or regret that he adds: "Of course, they've really come down hard on them. You can only get them now if you have narcolepsy."

Joe Gideon may have his exaggerated aspects, Fosse admits, but "the majority of people that I know have this obsession -- people in the theater or films. The particular show, ballet or movie becomes the most important thing in their life for the period of time they're working on it."

And if Joe Giedon's colleagues seem ruthless as well as obssessed, Fosse says that's not far off the mark, either. When Gideon is sidelined by his heart troubles, a fellow director (obnoxiously portrayed by John Lithgow) moves in almost immediately to take over his show. The producers, meanwhile, weigh the advantages of canceling the show outright and collecting a generous insurance payout. That almost happened to him on "Dancin'," says Fosse.

When Gideon's theater friends visit him in his hospital room, they seem utterly unconcerned by his smoking, drinking and carousing -- indeed, they eagerly participate in it. (There was a bit that showed them trying to restrain him, Fosse explains, but it got lost in the cutting room.)

Not all of Fosse's theatrical acquaintances are so driven and callous, he admits. There are those who are "more at peace with themselves," perhaps because they possess more professional self-confidence. "I'm always envious," says Fosse. "There's a great deal of energy that's expended by people like Joe Gideon that's probably unnecessary energy." And "women, as a general observation, seem to have less need at this moment in history to succeed. I think they have a much healthier point of view about everything."

The three women in Joe Gideon's life -- his daughter, his girlfriend and his former wife -- are, indeed, the most likeable people in "All That Jazz." hBut Gideon's opinion of women is perhaps a shade less respectful than Fosse's.

"Do you believe in love?" Gideon's girlfriend, played by Ann Reinking, asks him.

"I believe in saying 'I love you,'" he answers. "It helps your concentration."

Personal and professional relationships are thoroughly scrambled in the movie, and apparently no less so in Fosse's life. The stage star of "Sweet Charity," replaced by Shirley Maclaine when Fosse turned the show into a movie, was Gwen Verdon, to whom he was married at one time. Now Verdon is recreating the choreography for the national touring company of "Dancin'." What's more, say Fosse, she likes "All That Jazz," in which a character very like her is played by Leland Palmer. "Gwen is a very loyal person to me. We're about as close as two divorced people can be."

Fosse has become and old hand at wading through these diplomatic minefields. Turning "Cabaret" from a stage musical (directed by Harold Prince) into a movie, he decided to abandon all of John Kander and Fred Ebb's numbers except those sung by characters who were performers. "There were some very innovative things in the stage show 'Cabaret,'" he says, "but a lot of it was traditional." Fosse, or course, has worked on many traditional musicals, but he's not sure he could do one again. "It's very hard now to make people believe somebody's walking down the street and he's a salesman and suddenly he breaks into singing and dancing," he says.

What did the Kander and Ebb think of the decision of abandon half their score? "I'm sure it hurt them -- no songwriter likes it when you take songs out, but they're real showmen," says Fosse. "They agreed and not only that, they wrote some new songs for me."

He made "Lenny" into a movie with Dustin Hoffman instead of the Broadway star, Cliff Gorman, then turned around and cast Gorman in "All That Jazz," playing essentially the same role in a movie-within-the-movie that bears a strong resemblance to "Lenny."

"I was a little timid about offering this to him, but he was not timid about accepting," Foose explains.

Beyond a desire to create a full-length ballet, Fosse has no current plans. His agent, Sam Cohn of International Creative Management, keeps a steady flow of material coming Fosse's way, "but so much of it falls into genre kinds of shows," he says. "They're like modern relics with a little spicier language."

So if the money people will let him, Fosse will probably find something just as eccentric, just as personal, just as unexpected as "All That Jazz" to follow it with.

"I'm reading and looking," he says.