Jack Rollins Dies at 100; Managed Comedy Greats Like Woody Allen

June 29, 2015

By ROBERT D. McFADDEN
June 19, 2015

Jack Rollins, a producer and a sharp-eyed talent manager who saw more than a shy gag-writer in Woody Allen and believed that the manic improvisations of Robin Williams would crack up audiences, died on Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 100.

His daughter Susan Rollins confirmed his death.

Mr. Rollins did not just boost fragile young egos. To his clients — who also included Billy Crystal, David Letterman, Lenny Bruce and the team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, an American pantheon of hilarity — he was a father-confessor, real estate agent, psychiatrist, marriage counselor and financial guru.

Mr. Rollins and his longtime partner, Charles H. Joffe, who was a co-producer of most of Mr. Allen’s films in the 1970s, were deans of comedy management for decades starting in the 1960s, nurturing generations of the nation’s funniest entertainers to fill the hungry maws of nightclubs, television, Broadway and Hollywood.

Mr. Rollins was the model, loosely, for the manager of bizarre variety acts played by Mr. Allen in “Broadway Danny Rose” (1984). Like Danny Rose, he was a sympathetic listener, a friend and adviser who catered to the idiosyncrasies and professional needs of performers, although unlike Danny he never handled a blind xylophone player, a one-legged tap dancer or a performing penguin dressed as a rabbi. (Mr. Rollins appeared briefly in the film, playing himself.)

Mr. Rollins, who was tall and thin and typically wore a rumpled suit and smiled a lot with a cigar clenched in his teeth, got his start in show business after World War II as a Broadway producer. But it was a struggle, and in 1951 he founded a one-man talent agency in Midtown Manhattan. He began representing dramatic actors, writers and singers before, with Mr. Joffe, turning to handling comedians almost exclusively.

Many managers favored established performers, but he preferred to find and develop young comics, then focused on only a few for a closer working relationship. He was a regular at Greenwich Village clubs, where he scouted the talent. He helped clients pick clothes and find apartments, stood up as best man at their weddings and later mediated their marriage spats and consulted on life insurance.

One of his first clients was Harry Belafonte. Mr. Rollins suggested that he give up pop songs and sing calypso and folk music that reflected his Caribbean heritage. He also helped Mr. Belafonte develop an act that took advantage of his striking good looks and acting ability as well as his voice, which was husky and expressive but, as Mr. Belafonte acknowledged, not very powerful. Although they parted company, Mr. Belafonte soon became a sensation.

Mr. Rollins also promoted the early career of Lenny Bruce, the rebel comedian who was prosecuted for obscenity, and developed the comedy team of Nichols and May, who had a meteoric rise on television and Broadway in the 1950s before going separate ways.

One day in the late ’50s, a bony, bespectacled face peeked in at the Rollins-Joffe door. It was a painfully shy Mr. Allen. “Woody wanted merely for us to manage his affairs in a conventional fashion, to better his career as a TV writer,” Mr. Rollins told The New York Times in 1985. “Well, we just thought he had the potential to be a triple threat, like Orson Welles — writer, director, actor.”

Mr. Rollins worked with Mr. Allen on routines, perfecting timely pauses, the right inflections and gestures for punch lines, and prodded him to take risks. It took 18 months of stand-up club dates, but the Allen magic caught on. “He pushed me to always be deeper, more complex, more human, more dramatic — and not to rest comfortably,” Mr. Allen told Eric Lax for his book “Woody Allen: A Biography” (1991).

“A Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe Production” was the credit on many Woody Allen films, although both were not always involved. While their partnership continued, they often worked separately with different clients. Mr. Joffe moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, while Mr. Rollins remained in New York. Despite having a joint credit, Mr. Joffe alone accepted the 1977 Academy Award for best picture for Mr. Allen’s “Annie Hall.”

Robin Williams became a client in the late 1970s. Agents hardly knew what to do with his parodies of Shakespeare in iambic pentameter, his impromptu foreign dialects and improvisations like “and look, a gentle rose, dying here anon … like myself.” Mr. Rollins gave structure to the scattershot performances, breaking them down into beginnings, middles and ends. Mr. Williams was soon one of the hottest stars on television, playing a quirky alien on “Mork and Mindy” and on his way to stardom.

Jack Rollins was born Jacob Rabinowitz in Brooklyn around March 23, 1915, a date his parents agreed on years later because no one kept track. He was the oldest of three children of Louis and Sarah Rabinowitz, Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Russia. His father, a blacksmith in Kiev, became a garment worker.

Jacob and his sisters, Netty and Harriette, grew up in East New York. Jacob graduated from Jefferson High School in 1933 and the City College of New York in 1937, then changed his name to Jack Rollins and worked for two years at an orphanage in Chicago.

Drafted into the Army, he spent most of World War II in India, decoding communications. One of his commanding officers was the film star Melvyn Douglas, who staged shows for troops in the China-Burma-India theater and helped Mr. Rollins make contacts to get started as a producer after the war.

In 1948, Mr. Rollins married the singer Jane Martin (who was born Pearl Rose Levine).

She died in 2012. Besides his daughter Susan, he is survived by two other daughters, Hillary Rollins and Francesca Rollins, and four grandchildren.

Mr. Rollins was the executive producer of “Late Night With David Letterman” on NBC from its debut in 1982 to 1992, shortly before Mr. Letterman moved to CBS. In 1990, he and Mr. Joffe sold their agency to associates and returned to a two-man partnership with only a few clients, including Mr. Letterman and Mr. Allen.

Mr. Joffe died in 2008. Mr. Rollins, who had lived in the same apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for 50 years, and who also had a home in Old Chatham, N.Y., retired in 1992.

He had kept a reminder on his office wall: “It’s difficult to soar with eagles when you walk with turkeys.”

Originally published by The New York Times