Rick Ludwin, who oversaw late-night programming at NBC for many years but is probably best known for backing the sitcom “Seinfeld” when it seemed the network might drop the show before it started its storied run, died on Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 71.
His death, at a hospital, was caused by organ failure, said Daniel Ludwin, his nephew.
Mr. Ludwin was in charge of NBC’s late-night shows — including “Saturday Night Live,” “The Tonight Show,” “Late Night With David Letterman” and assorted specials — when he became part of the "Seinfeld" origin story, as it evolved from a possible one-time 90-minute special to fill in for “S.N.L.” into a weekly series, about four misanthropic friends in Manhattan.
In the beginning, at screenings of the pilot for what was then called “The Seinfeld Chronicles,” created by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, audiences were underwhelmed.
“The test audiences felt the supporting cast was not strong enough and Jerry himself was a weak lead,” Mr. Ludwin said in "Seinfeld: How It Began" (2004), a documentary that was part of a “Seinfeld” DVD release.
In his pitch to Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC Entertainment, he recalled, he told him, “I’ll take two hours out of my specials budget, split that into four half-hours, and that will be our order for ‘Seinfeld.’”
The four shows ran on Thursday nights in May and June of 1990 as a prelude to the 12 episodes that began airing in January 1991 and a full season that began the following fall. Though not an immediate hit, “Seinfeld” became one of the seminal sitcoms of all time.
Mr. Ludwin, who worked with Johnny Carson during his last years as the “Tonight Show” host, said he was one of the few NBC executives whom Carson had admitted to his inner circle.
Richard Adam Ludwin was born on May 27, 1948, in Cleveland to Daniel and Leanore (Prucha) Ludwin. His father was the supervisor of parks and recreation in Rocky River, a suburb of Cleveland; his mother owned a construction, heating and air-conditioning company.
Rick’s early fascination with television found an outlet at Miami University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications. While there, he hosted a comedy-variety series on the campus TV station.
“I had this love for live television,” he told The Miamian. “There was nothing more exciting.”
After earning a master’s degree in communications at Northwestern University, Mr. Ludwin worked for TV stations in Detroit and Chicago before moving to Philadelphia for a job as a producer of "The Mike Douglas Show", the long-running daytime talk show, and a talent booker for it.
He was hired by NBC Entertainment as director of variety programs in 1980, a job that let him work on prime-time specials with Bob Hope. He eventually rose to executive vice president of late-night programming and specials.
His immersion in late night made him an aficionado of its hosts and programs, dating to the days of Steve Allen in the 1950s. NBC’s long dominance of the hours after prime time gave him some perspective on the difficulty of hosting successful late-night programs.
“I thought: ‘Do you think taking this job is going to give you more time with your kids? Come on down, let’s see your best pitch, pal.’” Referring to the show, he added, “It was over shortly.”
In the early 1990s, Mr. Ludwin was one of the executives at the NBC studios in Burbank, Calif., who oversaw the difficult changeover of “Tonight” hosts from Carson to Jay Leno. Like many of them, he preferred the easygoing Mr. Leno to the irascible Mr. Letterman, who had long hoped to replace Carson.
Mr. Ludwin was also Conan O’Brien’s advocate when Mr. O’Brien struggled with bad ratings and barbed criticism after replacing Mr. Letterman at “Late Night.”
“Pretty much everyone at the network thought I should be canceled,” Mr. O'Brien said on Monday night in paying tribute to Mr. Ludwin on “Conan,” his show on TBS. “He argued passionately for me with the network, and he helped keep me on the air during those first two years.”
Mr. Ludwin was in favor of the network’s decision to have Mr. O’Brien replace Mr. Leno as the host of “Tonight” in 2009. At the time, NBC had given Mr. Leno a nightly prime-time show. Neither show thrived, and Mr. Leno returned to “Tonight” in 2010. Mr. O’Brien left NBC for TBS later that year.
He leaves no immediate survivors.
Seth Meyers, the current host of “Late Night,” said on his show on Monday that when he was a writer at “S.N.L.,” a cherished gift would sometimes arrive from Burbank for him and other writers — a page from a sketch, on which Mr. Ludwin would write: “This played great. Rick.”
Mr. Meyers added, “You’d save them so when you had a bad week, you had this proof, according to a legend, that something you had written had played great.”
Mr. Meyers recalled how “Saturday Night Live” writers had inaugurated a new tradition: forging Mr. Ludwin’s encouraging words on pages of scripts that had bombed and slipping them under the writer’s door.
“When I told Rick we had started to do that,” Mr. Meyers said, “he was delighted.”