A se­ri­ous judge of com­edy

JACK ROLLINS, 1915-2015

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By David Colker david.colker@latimes.com

Tal­ent man­ager Jack Rollins, whose clients in­cluded Woody Allen, has died at 100.

Leg­endary tal­ent man­ager Jack Rollins’ client list played a key role in defin­ing com­edy in the last half of the 20th cen­tury and be­yond.

Woody Allen, David Let­ter­man, Robin Wil­liams, Joan Rivers, Billy Crys­tal, Mike Ni­chols, Elaine May, Paula Pound­stone, Martin Short, Robert Klein — all were on his ros­ter at one point or another.

Along the way, Rollins helped cre­ate the role of the mod­ern show busi­ness man­ager.

“When I went into this busi­ness in 1946,” he said in a 1988 Chicago Tri­bune in­ter­view, “there weren’t man­agers. There was Milton Berle’s mother.”

Rollins, 100, died Thurs­day of nat­u­ral causes at his home in New York City, said his daugh­ter, Su­san.

Rollins and his long­time busi­ness part­ner, Charles Joffe, who died in 2008, liked to find young tal­ent to nur­ture. Rollins, Rivers told the Tri­bune in 1986, “could take a grain of sand and make it into an in­dus­try.”

That was never more true than with Woody Allen, who came to Rollins’ Man­hat­tan of­fice in the late 1950s be­cause he wanted to write for Ni­chols and May, the hip com­edy act of the era. That wouldn’t work out be­cause the duo cre­ated their own ma­te­rial, but Rollins and Joffe saw some­thing in the young TV writer.

“He’d be dead se­ri­ous when he read a sketch of his, but it hit us funny,” Rollins told the New York Times in 1985. “He didn’t know why we were laugh­ing. He’d give a ‘what’s so funny?’ look.”

They en­cour­aged the dead­pan Allen to do stand-up. It was painful at first. “The first 18 months as a stand-up co­me­dian were hor­ren­dous,” Rollins said in the 1986 Tri­bune in­ter­view. “He was the worst co­me­dian you can pos­si­bly imag­ine — zero grace as a per­former.”

Fi­nally the tide turned. “He got a smile, then a laugh, and then a cult.”

Allen never for­got the man­ager who stuck by him. He con­tin­ued to list Rollins as a pro­ducer on his films — in­clud­ing “Ir­ra­tional Man,” sched­uled to be re­leased next month — long af­ter the man­ager re­tired.

“Jack had not been in­volved with his films for many years,” Robert Weide, di­rec­tor of the 2012 film “Woody Allen: A Doc­u­men­tary,” said in an in­ter­view Thurs­day. “I’m not sure if they even talked much.”

Weide asked Allen why he con­tin­ued to give Rollins the credit. “Be­cause with­out Jack,” Allen told him, “I wouldn’t have a ca­reer.”

On Thurs­day, Allen is­sued a state­ment on Rollins: “He was one of the very few peo­ple in my life who lived up to the hype about him. All the sto­ries about how great Jack Rollins was are true.”

Rollins was born Ja­cob Rabi­nowitz on March 23, 1915, in Brook­lyn. He grad­u­ated from Thomas Jef­fer­son High School and earned a de­gree at City Col­lege of New York. But he wasn’t aim­ing for a show busi­ness ca­reer in par­tic­u­lar, ac­cord­ing to his daugh­ter Francesca.

“He didn’t know what he wanted to do,” she said. “He knew he couldn’t do a nor­mal job. He had to find some­thing where he could stay up late, and get up late and not re­quire him to punch a clock. That wasn’t his style.”

The an­swer came when he was in the Army dur­ing World War II, sta­tioned on a base in In­dia. He got in­volved in a satir­i­cal re­vue about Army life and de­cided show busi­ness was his call­ing.

Back in New York af­ter the war, he was look­ing for plays to pro­duce with­out much luck when he be­came a man­ager by “sheer ac­ci­dent,” Rollins was quoted as say­ing in the 1991 book “The Com­pass,” about the im­prov group that gave Ni­chols and May their start.

“I was strolling in the Vil­lage court­ing my wife,” he said. “We peered into the win­dow of a tiny res­tau­rant, and there was Harry Be­la­fonte, f lip­ping ham­burg­ers.” Rollins’ soon-to-be wife, Jane, rec­og­nized Be­la­fonte as a strug­gling pop singer seek­ing to switch to folk mu­sic. Be­la­fonte be­came Rollins’ first ma­jor client. He helped forge a new im­age for the singer, lead­ing to early suc­cesses.

The two had a bit­ter fall­ing-out af­ter a few years, but Rollins had earned a rep­u­ta­tion as a man­ager who had solid in­stincts when it came to build­ing ca­reers.

Rollins and Joffe were known for tak­ing on only a few clients at a time. Even­tu­ally, Joffe worked al­most solely with Allen and Rollins fo­cused on Let­ter­man. Rollins was listed as ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer on the NBC show “Late Night with David Let­ter­man” from 1983 to 1991.

For all his in­flu­ence on com­edy, Rollins — who had a rum­pled look and of­ten sported a cigar — was known as some­one who couldn’t tell a joke. But there were funny sto­ries about him, in­clud­ing one that Billy Crys­tal told the Tri­bune in 1986.

Crys­tal was do­ing stand-up in 1974 when Rollins came to see him in a Man­hat­tan club. Af­ter the per- for­mance, a ner­vous Crys­tal of­fered Rollins a ride home, which turned out to be even more nervewrack­ing be­cause the man­ager spent the drive crit­i­ciz­ing his act. Fi­nally, they reached Rollins’ home.

“He got to his door,” Crys­tal said, “and he headed back to my car. I thought he was go­ing to say some­thing like, ‘I thought you were ter­rific’ or ‘I didn’t mean to hurt your feel­ings,’ but he said to me, ‘Would you mind tak­ing me back? I just re­al­ized I drove over there tonight and I left my car.’ ”

On Thurs­day, Crys­tal said in an email: “Jack’s notes on my work al­ways meant ev­ery­thing to me. To me he was a real gi­ant.”

Rollins’ wife, Jane, died in 2012. He is sur­vived by daugh­ters Su­san, Francesca and Hil­lary, and four grand­chil­dren.

Carol Bern­son

SHOW BUSI­NESS WAS HIS CALL­ING Tal­ent agent Jack Rollins in his of­fice in 1990. “When I went into this busi­ness in 1946,” the Brook­lyn na­tive said in a 1988 Chicago

Tri­bune in­ter­view, “there weren’t man­agers. There was Milton Berle’s mother.”

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