Longtime comedy producer-manager Jack Rollins, who handled Woody Allen, David Letterman, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Lenny Bruce, died Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 100.
Rollins, a native of Brooklyn, was a co-producer with the late Charles H. Joffe on many of Allen’s films. The duo managed many of the industry’s top comedy acts starting in the 1960s.
Rollins appeared briefly in Allen’s 1984 film, “Broadway Danny Rose,” in which Allen played a manager of a variety of strange acts — a character he loosely modeled on Rollins.
Rollins and Joffe had producing credits on all of Allen’s films between 1969 and 1993, including “Take the Money and Run,” “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “Bananas,” Sleeper,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Zelig,” “Radio Days” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
Born as Jacob Rabinowitz in Brooklyn, he broke into the business after World War II as a Broadway producer, then founded a talent agency in Manhattan before partnering with Joffe.
His early clients during the 1950s included singer Harry Belafonte, Bruce and the comedy team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. He began working with a shy Allen in the late 1950s.
“He pushed me to always be deeper, more complex, more human, more dramatic — and not to rest comfortably,” Allen told Eric Lax for his book “Woody Allen: A Biography.”
“Woody wanted merely for us to manage his affairs in a conventional fashion, to better his career as a TV writer,” 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.”
Rollins was also credited with providing guidance beyond career counseling to his clients, such finding apartments and advising on wardrobes. Emmy-winning producer-director Robert Weide, who worked for Rollins and Joffe in the 1980s and 1990s, told Variety that Rollins combined smarts, gut instincts and kindness in his conduct as a manager.
“There aren’t too many managers who have all three attributes,” Weide said. “Jack was a real mensch — kind of like this giant sequoia in the redwoods. For a lot of us, the wind is out of our sails today.”
Weide interviewed Rollins extensively for “Woody Allen: A Documentary,” a two-part film for the American Masters series on PBS, which aired in 2011. He said that Rollins remained vibrant during April’s surprise celebration of his 100th birthday, organized by his daughters.
Weide noted that Rollins and Joffe taking on producer roles in Allen’s movies was a pioneering move, done to protect their client’s interests.
Rollins also managed the late Robin Williams starting in the late 1970s, bringing order and structure to the former street mime’s somewhat chaotic performances and helping him score a breakthrough role on “Mork and Mindy.” Other clients included Robert Klein, Dick Cavett, Jimmy Tingle, Diane Keaton, Paula Poundstone and Martin Short.
Rollins was the executive producer of “Late Night With David Letterman” on NBC from 1982 to 1992, when Letterman moved to CBS. He retired that year.
Even after Rollins retired, Allen continued to give him executive producer credits on his films, including last year’s “Magic in the Moonlight.”
Allen said in 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.”
He remained modest about his achievements, sometimes saying, “I have a talent for noticing other talent” when asked to explain his success.
Rollins changed his name to Jack Rollins in the late 1930s and spent most of World War II in India.
He is survived by three daughters, Susan, Hillary and Francesca, and four grandchildren.
(pictured, Charles Joffe, left, Jack Rollins, center, Woody Allen)