Jack Rollins helped make stars of per­form­ers in­clud­ing Harry Be­la­fonte and Woody Allen.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­post.com

With­out Jack Rollins, the world might never have learned of the tal­ents of Harry Be­la­fonte, Woody Allen or Robin Wil­liams. Mr. Rollins, whose man­age­ment agency made stars of many co­me­di­ans, mu­si­cians and other per­form­ers for decades, died June 18 at his home in New York City. He was 100.

A daugh­ter, Francesca Rollins, con­firmed the death but said the cause was not de­ter­mined.

Mr. Rollins, a clas­sic cigar­chomp­ing showbiz char­ac­ter born of old-school Broad­way, prac­ti­cally cre­ated the job of tal­ent man­ager.

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

Mr. Rollins couldn’t sing, couldn’t dance and couldn’t re­mem­ber the punch­lines of jokes. What he had, he said, was “a tal­ent for notic­ing other tal­ent.”

He be­came known early in his ca­reer for dis­cov­er­ing Be­la­fonte, trans­form­ing him from a short­order cook to a record­ing star and ac­tor.

He man­aged Mike Ni­chols and Elaine May when they were one of the top com­edy acts of the 1950s. One day, Mr. Rollins saw “a thin, bony lit­tle face” peer­ing through his door. It was Allen, who wanted to write skits for Ni­chols and May.

Mr. Rollins ex­plained that the com­edy duo wrote their own ma­te­rial. Nev­er­the­less, he and his busi­ness part­ner, Charles H. Joffe, saw some­thing com­pelling in the meek, be­spec­ta­cled writer.

“He’d be dead se­ri­ous when he read a sketch of his, but it hit us funny,” Mr. 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.

“Well, we just thought he had the po­ten­tial to be a triple threat, like Or­son Welles — writer, di­rec­tor, ac­tor.”

Mr. Rollins took on Allen as a client, with a hand­shake as their con­tract. He booked Allen into a small com­edy club for no pay.

“The first 18 months as a stand-up co­me­dian were hor­ren­dous,” Mr. Rollins told the Chicago Tri­bune in 1986. “He was the worst co­me­dian you can pos­si­bly imag­ine — zero grace as a per­former.”

But there was some­thing be­yond the jokes that ap­pealed to Mr. Rollins. Allen pos­sessed some strange in­verted charisma that made au­di­ences con­nect with him as a per­son.

Night af­ter night, one awk­ward per­for­mance af­ter another, Mr. Rollins and Joffe would sit down with Allen to re­view his act.

“We told him we could un­der­stand if he quit,” Mr. Rollins told the Tri­bune. “But in the next six months he be­gan to learn the art of per­form­ing. He got a smile, then a laugh, and then a cult.”

By the late 1960s, Allen was ful­fill­ing Mr. Rollins’s “triplethreat” pre­dic­tion by writ­ing, di­rect­ing and act­ing in films. When Allen’s 1977 film “An­nie Hall” won the Academy Award for best pic­ture, Joffe and Mr. Rollins ac­cepted the Os­car at the cer­e­mony.

Allen’s 1984 film “Broad­way Danny Rose,” about a small-time man­ager pro­mot­ing such hope­less acts as a one-legged tap dancer, was based in part on Mr. Rollins, who made a cameo ap­pear­ance in the movie.

Since 1969, all of Allen’s films have been de­scribed in the cred­its as “A Jack Rollins and Charles H. Joffe Pro­duc­tion,” even af­ter Mr. Rollins re­tired in the 1990s and af­ter Joffe died in 2008.

“With­out Jack,” Allen told film­maker Robert B. Weide for a 2012 doc­u­men­tary, “I wouldn’t have a ca­reer.”

Allen may have been the most con­spic­u­ous star whose suc­cess was forged by Mr. Rollins and Joffe, but their clients also in­cluded singers Tony Ben­nett and Melissa Manch­ester; co­me­di­ans Lenny Bruce, Joan Rivers, Robert Klein, Jim Car­rey, Paula Pound­stone, Martin Short and Steven Wright; and talk-show hosts Dick Cavett and David Let­ter­man. From 1982 to 1993, Mr. Rollins was the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of “Late Night With David Let­ter­man.”

Mr. Rollins also helped shape the ca­reer of a one­time San Fran­cisco street per­former, Robin Wil­liams, fo­cus­ing his an­tic energy into a com­edy rou­tine, then into a long ca­reer as a comic and dra­matic ac­tor.

In se­lect­ing his clients, Mr. Rollins said he turned down per­form­ers whose goal was to get rich. He was in­ter­ested only in peo­ple will­ing to work at de­vel­op­ing their art.

“Our guid­ing line was never, ever the amount of money that could be made,” he told Eric Lax for his 1991 bi­og­ra­phy of Allen. “It was the chal­lenge of de­vel­op­ing some­one who we felt was worth­while to de­velop.

“If you de­velop some­one prop­erly, peo­ple will come to you of­fer­ing more money than you ever dreamed.”

Mr. Rollins was born Ja­cob Rabi­nowitz in Brook­lyn on or about March 23, 1915. His par­ents, who were Yid­dish-speak­ing im­mi­grants from Rus­sia, es­ti­mated his date of birth years later. His fa­ther worked in the gar­ment trade.

Soon af­ter grad­u­at­ing from City Col­lege of New York in 1937, Mr. Rollins changed his name. Dur­ing World War II, he served in the Army in In­dia, where he helped put on in­for­mal shows with other sol­diers.

Af­ter the war, he tried to be­come a the­atri­cal pro­ducer, but he didn’t find suc­cess un­til he set up a one-man man­age­ment of­fice in 1951. Be­la­fonte was his sole client.

He en­cour­aged Be­la­fonte to sing ca­lypso and other forms of mu­sic re­flect­ing his Caribbean her­itage and spent months help­ing the singer re­hearse.

“I taught him phras­ing and show­man­ship,” Mr. Rollins said. “I taught him how to move around and be re­laxed with an au­di­ence. When we were ready, I booked him into the Vil­lage Vanguard as a folk singer.”

As one of the coun­try’s first black per­form­ers with cross­over ap­peal, Be­la­fonte be­came a sen­sa­tion. Mr. Rollins se­cured a record con­tract with RCA, a movie deal and night­club dates in Las Ve­gas.

Then, with­out warn­ing, Be­la­fonte dropped him as his man­ager in 1954.

“Just when my years of strug­gling for him are start­ing to pay off he runs out on me,” Mr. Rollins said in 1959. “I don’t know why. He never told me why. We were like a fa­ther and a son, and he hurt me deeply.”

In 1952, Joffe joined Mr. Rollins’s agency and be­came a part­ner in the 1960s. (They had other as­so­ci­ates over the years, but Mr. Rollins and Joffe were al­ways the two prin­ci­pals.)

Joffe, who worked in Los An­ge­les while Mr. Rollins re­mained in New York, was cred­ited with se­cur­ing Allen’s artis­tic in­de­pen­dence, with con­tracts grant­ing the film­maker com­plete con­trol over his movies. In re­turn, Joffe and Mr. Rollins re­ceived 15 per­cent of the prof­its from Allen’s films.

Mr. Rollins’s wife of 63 years, one­time singer Jane Martin, born Pearl Rose Levine, died in 2012. Sur­vivors in­clude three daugh­ters, Francesca Rollins of Los An­ge­les, Hil­lary Rollins of Santa Mon­ica, Calif., and Su­san Rollins of New York; and four grand­chil­dren.

Although Mr. Rollins couldn’t al­ways re­mem­ber jokes, he had a knack for be­ing at the cen­ter of laugh­ter. In the 1970s, he helped launch the ca­reer of Billy Crys­tal, sug­gest­ing that he leave a com­edy troupe to de­velop a solo act.

Af­ter watch­ing Crys­tal one night at a New York com­edy club, Mr. Rollins asked for a ride home to the Up­per West Side. He folded him­self into the front seat of Crys­tal’s Volk­swa­gen and spent the en­tire trip crit­i­ciz­ing his rou­tine.

“He got to his door, and he headed back to my car,” Crys­tal re­called to the Tri­bune in 1986. “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.’ ”


Jack Rollins, right, and co-pro­ducer Charles H. Joffe, left, with Jack Ni­chol­son af­ter re­ceiv­ing the Os­car for best pic­ture forWoody Allen’s 1977 film “An­nie Hall.” Allen’s 1984 film “Broad­way Danny Rose” was based in part onMr. Rollins, whose clients in­cluded Robin Wil­liams and David Let­ter­man.


Rollins was a clas­sic char­ac­ter born of old-school Broad­way.

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