Charles Joffe (left), Jack Rollins (centre), and Woody Allen (right)
Talent manager and agent
July 24, 2015
“Gentleman Jack” Rollins was a cigar-chomping, old-school manager for some of the leading lights of American comedy. His oldest and most famous client, Woody Allen, once said he is “to the profession of theatrical management what poetry is to prose”. Another compliment was paid by Joan Rivers, who said he “could take a grain of sand and make it into an industry”.
His loyalty towards his clients, who invariably became friends, was matched by shrewd judgment. He took the time to attend gigs in small clubs to boost his clients’ confidence and, crucially, advised about when they were ready to move on to television.
Born as Jacob Rabinowitz in 1915, he grew up in Brooklyn, New York, with his two sisters and his parents who were Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrants (his father, a blacksmith in Kiev, became a garment worker). He graduated from Thomas Jefferson high school and earned a degree at City College of New York. He changed his surname to Rollins and worked in an orphanage for two years.
When America entered the war, he was drafted by the army and sent to India, where American military personnel helped fly supplies over the Himalayas. He hosted a weekly broadcast for armed forces radio and put on a satirical revue about army life. One of his commanding officers turned out to be the film star Melvyn Douglas, who gave him showbusiness contacts back home.
After returning to New York, he thought vaguely of producing Broadway plays until a fortuitous encounter led to a different direction. He was out strolling in Greenwich Village while courting his girlfriend when she happened to notice a young aspirant singer named Harry Belafonte flipping burgers in a restaurant. Rollins took him on, persuading him to make the transformation to folk and calypso.
Greenwich Village, with its numerous nightclubs, was Rollins’ stamping ground. He booked clients into venues and offered advice about dress, image, comic material and financial matters as well as relationships. David Letterman, who Rollins helped in his three-decade long career as a chat show host, said that “anything of extreme importance, I’ll talk to Jack about. It`s like going back to Indiana and having a talk with your father.” Most of his business was conducted after dark. “The phone calls we used to get in the middle of the night,” his wife recalled with a sigh. He married Pearl Rose Levine, known as Jane Martin, in 1948; she died in 2012.
One friend said that because Rollins had three daughters (Susan, a dance educator, Hillary, a playwright and producer, and Francesca, a television writer), he treated his clients as substitute sons. The family lived on the Upper West Side and spent summers in Columbia County.
Rollins’ path soon crossed with a neurotic, bespectacled, red-headed young man who was writing gags and sketches for radio and television shows. Woody Allen approached Rollins, seeking representation as a writer, but Rollins saw the performer in him. “Just trust me,” Rollins told him. “You work and do what I tell you.” Allen hated being up on stage. He would vomit before doing spots and get entangled in his microphone lead. However, with Rollins he began to gain confidence in projecting his neuroses in a way that charmed people. “He got a smile, then a laugh, and then a cult.”
Rollins’ strategy was simple: to saturate the country with Allen until he became a household name. “He wanted me to seep into the pores of the nation,” Allen reflected. There was no opportunity that Rollins ignored, even booking Allen to box a kangaroo on British TV.
Later Rollins and his business partner Charles H Joffe enjoyed producer credits on every film Allen made, though they voluntarily reduced their profit-participation after 1980. They never had a written agreement with Allen for their management role. His films all made respectable sums until Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979), on which the profits were stratospheric.
In the wake of Allen’s success, Rollins Joffe expanded into film production with other artists. Their first film under this arrangement was Arthur (1981), starring Dudley Moore, which grossed close to $100 million.
Other clients included Steven Wright, Jim Carrey and Diana Keaton (while she was Woody Allen’s girlfriend). In the late 1970s Rollins and Joffe discovered an offbeat improvisational comedian named Robin Williams, who combined parodies of Shakespeare in iambic pentameter with funny voices in foreign accents. Rollins found the vehicle for making him famous — the part of the fish-out-of-water alien in the sitcom Mork & Mindy. From 1982, when the show started, to 1992, Rollins was also the executive producer of Late Night With David Letterman on NBC. Rollins then retired.
The comedian Robert Klein recalled how Rollins smoked eight to ten huge cigars a day, how his office was dense with smoke, and how all his erstwhile staff had died while Jack had made it to 100.
Jack Rollins, talent manager, was born on March 23, 1915. He died on June 18, 2015, aged 100
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