Jack Rollins, Woody Allen's Legendary Manager-Producer, Celebrates 100th Birthday

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Jack Rollins as featured in Robert B. Weide's 2012 film “Woody Allen: A Documentary”

Harry Belafonte, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal were among the talents discovered and nurtured by Rollins.

During production on the 2012 film Woody Allen: A Documentary, filmmaker Robert B. Weide asked his subject why he still puts the name of his longtime manager, Jack Rollins, on each of his films as executive producer. “Because without Jack, I wouldn’t have a career,” Woody Allen replied. A number of talented people feel the same about Rollins, so they showed up at his Upper West Side home Sunday night to pay tribute to the legendary manager-producer on his 100th birthday and to share stories about their remarkable friend.

Allen and Weide were among the celebrants, along with talk show host Dick Cavett, comedians Robert Klein and Jimmy Tingle and director Howard Storm, who also played one of the veteran comedians sharing stories around the deli table in Broadway Danny Rose. The surprise party was thrown by Rollins’ three daughters (Susan, Hillary and Francesca) and featured a magnificent spread of comfort foods, including lox, bagels, cream cheese and an enormous white cake with three numerical candles — “1-0-0” — all of which Rollins, whose actual 100th birthday was March 23, succeeded in blowing out.

One memorable moment for the roughly 60 attendees, Weide says, was the unusual sight of Allen, Cavett and Storm removing their hearing aids, then comparing and contrasting the different styles as they tried to sell Rollins — their senior by many years — on the idea that he should consider getting some of his own.

Writer-director Marshall Brickman told Storm he was surprised the latter made the trip from California just for Rollins’ party. Storm explained, “He turned my career around,” to which Brickman replied, “He turned all our careers around.”

Jacob Rabinowitz was the son of a Brooklyn garment worker. Not content to follow in his father’s footsteps, he shortened his name to the less-Hebraic “Jack Rollins,” set his sights on show business and succeeded in becoming one of the most-respected personal managers and producers in the history of show business.

In 1951, Rollins opened a management company to launch the career of a young singer named Harry Belafonte, who was flipping burgers in Greenwich Village at the time. Rollins devoted himself to Belafonte, literally grooming the singer for stardom by selecting the open-collared shirt and tight black pants that would become Belafonte’s signature look. Belafonte followed Rollins’ advice, his career took off, and, in 1954, he left Rollins and went with another firm — not unlike how fictional singer Lou Canova would jettison personal manager Danny Rose for a bigger firm in Broadway Danny Rose.

Despite the sting of Belafonte's abrupt departure, Rollins remained adamant about working intimately with his clients. As he explained it, “I have to work with people who fulfill me emotionally.” Rollins derived a paternal gratification from discovering and nurturing nascent talent, and he had a remarkable eye and ear for spotting the future stars of comedy, music, motion pictures and television.

His first clients after Belafonte were Mike Nichols and Elaine May, whose brilliant comic sketches influenced many who followed, including a young comedy writer named Woody Allen, who approached Rollins about writing material for the duo. Rollins said they wrote their own stuff, but he sensed that Allen might find a more satisfying outlet as a performer — something the painfully shy Allen at first resisted.

Rollins always preferred a small, select roster of clients, with nothing more than a handshake to seal the deal. Those fortunate few have included such unique and diverse talents as: Allen, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Joan Rivers, Nichols and May, Tony Bennett, Jim Carrey, Cavett, Diane Keaton, David Letterman, Klein, Martin Short, Jimmy Tingle, Brickman, Paula Poundstone, Storm, Melissa Manchester, Louise Lasser, Steven Wright and Andrea Martin

The late Charles Joffe joined the company in 1952 and became Jack’s partner in the early '60s. It’s often said that Rollins handled the creative side while Joffe took care of the business end, but that’s a more simplistic take on their dynamic than was actually the case. Nevertheless, Joffe is widely credited with getting clients more involved in motion pictures, rather than playing clubs and making records.

Rollins & Joffe found a San Francisco street mime named Robin Williams and turned him into the star of the wildly successful Mork & Mindy, which led to his impressive career in film. Rollins also saw a young stand-up named Billy Crystal and helped him become yet another major star of both the small and big screen.

The “emotional fulfillment” clearly goes both ways. Many have spoken of Rollins’ sage advice on the material they performed, their wardrobe, their personal lifestyle, helping them through emotional and financial crises and even being best man at their weddings. Allen said, “He’s to the profession of theatrical management what poetry is to prose.”

Rollins has always shrugged off the praise, saying, “I have a talent for noticing other talent.” He may well be the last of a breed — a breed of which he also may have been the first, given the unique and unprecedented personal attention he gave the clients he groomed for stardom. 

When Storm asked Rollins on Sunday night how it felt to hit this impressive milestone, Rollins replied, “I honestly can’t believe it. I’m shocked that I’m a hundred years old!” Long live Jack Rollins — although it seems he has already achieved that goal.

Steve Stoliar is the author of Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House.