Remembering Jack Rollins
Brief Note: I wrote this back in November 2011, several years before Rollins’ passed away at the age of 100 in June of this year (2015). Though reading it now, I see certain things I’d like to edit, I’ve resisted, especially given its peculiar prescience regarding the parting of ways of Lady Gaga and Troy Carter, her manager.
I was fortunate enough to intern for Jack Rollins, Woody Allen’s manager, in the summer of 1989 between my freshman and sophomore years of college. I was told that I was the first and last intern for the management company, which, looking back, was not a compliment. Having determined that I wanted to work in the entertainment business, I had written a letter to him, and his assistant had responded (via mailed letter) that Woody’s secretary vacationed in Greece every August, so they could use the additional support. What luck!
This was well before the Internet, so I only knew Mr. Rollins’ name from the Rollins-Joffe Productions slate in the Woody’s film credits. In other words, even if I had been interested, I would have had trouble researching him. Regardless, I struck gold that summer. A couple of points about Rollins and Allen’s relationship that I didn’t appreciate as an 18 year old, but which struck a chord more recently — after I saw “Midnight in Paris”:
-Mr. Rollins had been a manager since at least the early 50s. He told me that he had found Harry Belafonte, who had a “folk act” and convinced him to do a “calypso act” as a way of distinguishing himself. Mr. Rollins even co-wrote one of the songs — not to be confused with another well-regarded composer, also named Jack Rollins. Belafonte left him (I was told, for his analyst) soon after he became famous, which still upset Rollins in the early 90s. I recognize that Belafonte occupies hallowed ground as much for his incredible dedication to civil rights as for “Day-O” and “Matilda”, but I have trouble listening to the Carnegie Hall album (and its “Hava Nagila”) without thinking of that anecdote.
-Rollins had also help discover and manage a range of the great comedians of the 60s and 70s — from Robert Klein, Joan Rivers and Mike Nichols and Elaine May. He told me that he felt that May was the true comic genius of the duo, so it was unsurprising that I later discovered that “Ishtar” notwithstanding, she was a go-to, high priced script doctor. Also, Woody used her to great effect in “Small Time Crooks”, and they’ve collaborated twice in one act productions. I bet they met through being Rollins’ clients.
-Rollins also managed David Letterman during his NBC tenure. Even in his 70s, he went to 30 Rock every day for tapings. He introduced me to Letterman before one of the shows, and I could tell how much Letterman respected the man. How could you not? When Disney tried to claw back money from a movie option deal with Letterman, Rollins said absolutely not. Additionally, when Rollins partnered with LA managers Morra, Brezner and Steinberg, he also helped represent Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and others. He has such great taste and class. I’d bet all of his former clients would attest to this.
-This brings me to his relationship with Allen, one of the most longstanding, loyal relationships between talent and management. As producers and managers, Mr. Rollins and his partner, Charles Joffe, shared in the movies’ gross receipts. There was a time when Rollins and Joffe went to Woody and suggested that they take a smaller percentage, and Woody said absolutely not. He reasoned that he wouldn’t have had a career if Jack and Charlie didn’t convince him to try reading some of his work on stage as a stand up. Apparently, tears were shed, the relationship was that deep. I recall Woody’s dad, a lovely, funny guy named “Mr. K.”, telling me this story.
Can you imagine that happening today in the movie or music businesses?
Or for that matter, in any business?
How about in any personal relationship?
After graduating from University of Chicago, I got a job at William Morris. I was not successful, though many people I met there remain friends and acquaintances. I think a reason for my failure was I was so enamored of what “life” was like at Rollins-Joffe — sophisticated Irish tweed mixed with cantankerous Jewish Danny Rose-types managing one-of-a-kind talent — that I yearned to replicate a bygone era amidst the rising tide of Ovitz, M&A and multinationals. I was nostalgic for a past of art and business that had long since passed and didn’t have the constitution or interest to be part of the new breed.
As I watched “Midnight in Paris”, which illuminated the challenge of romantic nostalgia in the face of the present and future, it impelled me to reflect on my short time with Mr. Rollins and his relationship with talent, which will probably never be replicated in quite the same way.
I suppose time will tell how strong the bonds will be between Bieber and Scooter, between Gaga and Troy over the rough patches. At least, they could have something of a model in Rollins and Allen…if they cared.
But it’s a new, different world. Why look back?