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