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In Memory

Rick Ludwin

Rick Ludwin

Rick Ludwin, NBC executive who championed ‘Seinfeld,’ dies at 71

Updated Nov 11, 2019; Posted Nov 11, 2019

Rick Ludwin

Former NBC executive Rick Ludwin, shown here during a 2015 visit to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, died Sunday, Nov. 10, at 71. Photo courtesy of John Kiesewetter

By Mark Dawidziak, The Plain Dealer

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Rick Ludwin, the longtime NBC programming executive who became the network champion of an offbeat sitcom called “Seinfeld,” died Sunday, Nov. 10, in Los Angeles after a brief illness. The Cleveland native and Miami University graduate was 71.

Ludwin’s death was confirmed Monday by his nephew, Dan Ludwin, who said, “He was one of the lucky ones who always knew what he wanted, from a very young age, and he not only got to do it, he was extremely good at it.”

Ludwin, who grew up in Rocky River, held several posts during his long tenure at NBC, but he is most renowned for commissioning and lobbying for “The Seinfeld Chronicles,” the 1989 comedy pilot that became “Seinfeld.”

Although market testing for the untraditional series was negative and other network executives advised passing on it, Ludwin, then an executive vice president in charge of special programming, continued pushing for the comedy from creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.

Even NBC’s entertainment president, Brandon Tartikoff, who soon would be backing the “Seinfeld” cause, at first worried that the show was, in his words, “too New York” and “too Jewish” to appeal to a mainstream network audience. Despite never having been involved with a sitcom before, Ludwin believed in “Seinfeld” so much, he used funds from his specials budget to order four additional episodes.

“Seinfeld” went on to become one of the most popular, acclaimed and lucrative comedies in television history. Ludwin also was the vice president in charge of NBC late-night programming during the 2010 “Tonight” show struggle between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien.

In fact, during his 30-year run at NBC, Ludwin had the distinction of working with every host of the “Tonight” show: Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, Leno, O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon. He also worked on many comedy specials starring Bob Hope, the comedy legend who grew up in Cleveland.

Richard A. “Rick” Ludwin was born May 27, 1948, in Cleveland. A class of 1966 graduate of Rocky River High School, he earned a degree in mass communication in 1970 from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

He got his start in television in 1968 as the host of “Studio 14,” a talk show on Miami University’s WPDT Channel 14.

Ludwin backed O’Brien over Leno in the “Tonight” show tussle and left NBC in 2012. The following year, he donated 15 “Seinfeld” scripts, papers, documents and photos to Miami’s King Library. The university responded by naming the TV studio in Williams Hall in his honor.

Ludwin and O’Brien remained close, and, whenever possible, O’Brien participated in the Hollywood program Ludwin organized for Miami.

Ludwin came back to Oxford every year at his own expense to talk to students, most recently in March, when the Williams Hall studio where he got his start was named the Richard A. Ludwin Television Production Facility.

“He was a very private but fiercely passionate person,” Dan Ludwin said of his uncle. “He mentored so many people, and he was devoted to Rocky River and Miami University.”

--Published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer

Rick Ludwin, NBC Executive Who Championed ‘Seinfeld,’ Dies at 71

He was also a veteran of the late-night wars and presided over the difficult changeover of “Tonight Show” hosts from Johnny Carson to Jay Leno.

Rick Ludwin, the NBC executive in charge of late-night programming, addressing the news media in 2009. That year Conan O’Brien became host of “The Tonight Show,” replacing Jay Leno, who was given his own prime-time show. A year later, Mr. Leno was back at “Tonight.”Credit...Paul Drinkwater/NBC

Richard Sandomir

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.

From left, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards and Jerry Seinfeld in an episode of “Seinfeld.” Mr. Ludwin was a strong advocate for the show, which was not an immediate hit but eventually became one of the seminal sitcoms of all time.Credit...NBCU Photo Bank, via Getty Images

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.”


An earlier version of this obituary misstated the city where "The Mike Douglas Show" was based when Mr. Ludwin was a producer. It was Philadelphia, not Cleveland. (The show began in Cleveland but moved to Philadelphia in 1965.)

--Published in The New York Times

Rick Ludwin, former NBC executive who championed ‘Seinfeld,’ dies at 71

Rick Ludwin, former executive vice president of late night and specials programming at NBC.

Rick Ludwin, former executive vice president of late night and specials programming at NBC. 



NOV. 11, 2019

3:29 PM

In “Seinfeld,” a running gag depicted NBC executives’ bewilderment about a “show about nothing.” In real life, there were plenty of doubts early on about the Jerry Seinfeld/Larry David creation, but a mild-mannered NBC executive saw the potential.

That longtime NBC programming executive — Rick Ludwin — died at his home in Los Angeles on Sunday after a short illness, an NBC representative confirmed Monday. Ludwin was 71.

Ludwin was a gentle giant in an industry full of brash egos. A Midwesterner, he joined NBC in 1980 and spent 32 years at the peacock network, ultimately achieving the rank of executive vice president of late night and specials programming. Over the years, he worked with nearly every host of “The Tonight Show,” including Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon. He also helped produce comedy specials starring entertainment titan Bob Hope, who years earlier had grown up in Ludwin’s hometown of Cleveland.

Outside of industry circles, Ludwin will be best remembered as the man who commissioned, and championed, an offbeat, 23-minute pilot called “The Seinfeld Chronicles” in 1989. NBC entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff famously fretted that the show came across as “too New York” and “too Jewish” for mainstream audiences. The show bombed when it was screened for a test audience, adding to the concerns of NBC brass. (According to one test viewer quoted in an NBC research memo from that time, “You can’t get too excited about going to the Laundromat.”) But Ludwin, who had never overseen a comedy before, refused to give up. He lobbied for the show and used money from the specials budget to pay for four additional episodes so audiences could get a better sense of the show’s distinctive sense of humor.

“As a result of Ludwin’s passion, the series became one of prime-time television’s classic ‘Must See TV’ productions known for mass critical acclaim, Emmy awards and soaring audience ratings, and the comedy’s durability has continued long past its series finale in 1998 through constant syndication today,” NBC said in a statement.

“Rick Ludwin was the ONE person at NBC in 1989 that thought ‘The Seinfeld Chronicles’ would be a funny TV series. He loved The Stooges, Jerry Lewis and Abbott and Costello, so he and I always got along great,” Seinfeld said in a statement provided to The Times. “He was also just a sweetheart of a guy. Everyone at our show loved working with him.”

Ludwin was born May 27, 1948 in Cleveland. He left Rocky River, Ohio, to study at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he earned a mass communications degree. He got his start in TV as host of “Studio 14” at the school’s WPDT station, which was then known as WMUB TV. He later wrote jokes for Hope in the 1970s in Ohio.

Ludwin left NBC’s executive ranks in 2011 shortly after the Comcast Corp. takeover of the media company. He served as a special advisor for another year, leaving the network in 2012. At the time, he was one of its longest-serving executives, marking 32 years with NBC.

“The entire NBC family is deeply saddened today by the news of Rick Ludwin’s passing,” George Cheeks, vice chairman of NBCUniversal Content Studios, said in a statement. “Rick left an indelible mark in his 30-plus years at the network, with a rich legacy that lives on to this day.”

Ludwin, according to NBC, returned to his alma mater every year to speak to students. He also donated memorabilia and 15 original “Seinfeld” scripts to the university. The school named the Richard A. Ludwin Television Facility in his honor.

Ludwin is survived by his brother, Daniel L. Ludwin, niece Julie Honefenger, nephew Daniel B. Ludwin and great nieces and nephews.

Times staff writer Stephen Battaglio contributed to this report.

--Published in The Los Angeles Times

Rick Ludwin, NBC Late-Night Executive Who Backed ‘Seinfeld,’ Dies at 71 

By Cynthia Littleton

Rick Ludwin

NBC Photo

Rick Ludwin, the longtime NBC executive who championed "Seinfeld" and worked in late-night from the Johnny Carson era through Jimmy Fallon, died Sunday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 71.

Ludwin was well-liked throughout the TV industry and was highly regarded as a student of the medium. He retired from NBC after 31 years in 2011. He was hired at NBC in 1980 by the legendary Brandon Tartikoff, who had worked with Ludwin at WLS-TV Chicago.

Ludwin died Sunday after a brief illness, NBC confirmed. In his retirement, Ludwin remained an active TV biz commentator on TV via his Twitter account, @riclud. His last tweet on Oct. 13 offered praise for a “Saturday Night Live” skit: "#SNL airing right now. Very funny movie trailer parody — From director Todd Phillips, “GROUCH,” origin story of Oscar the Grouch. Great!!”

“Seinfeld” star Jerry Seinfeld said he felt it was a “privilege” to have known Ludwin. The two were together earlier this year to celebrate Seinfeld’s 65th birthday.

“Rick Ludwin was the ONE person at NBC in 1989 that thought ‘The Seinfeld Chronicles’ would be a funny TV series,” Seinfeld said. “He loved the Stooges, Jerry Lewis, and Abbott and Costello, so he and I always got along great. He was also just a sweetheart of a guy. Everyone at our show loved working with him.”

O’Brien, now host of TBS’ “Conan,” who worked with Ludwin from his earliest days as “Late Night” host, said he was “stunned and saddened” by news of the executive’s passing.

“Though Rick always looked the part of a network ‘suit,’ he was a remarkable rarity in our business — a principled and uncompromising fan of comedy and a lover of television who stood up for performers and shows he believed in even when it was personally risky for him,” O’Brien said. “There is not a single executive in my career that I admire more, and I will not see his like again.”

Andy Richter, longtime sidekick to O’Brien, called Ludwin “simply one of the best humans to ever work in television” in a Twitter message.

He was simply one of the best humans to ever work in television. He will be deeply missed.
Rick Ludwin, NBC executive who championed ‘Seinfeld,’ dies at 71 https://t.co/U6cwaBUbXR

— Andy Richter (@AndyRichter) November 11, 2019

Although the original 1989 pilot for the quirky ensemble comedy “The Seinfeld Chronicles” tested poorly, Ludwin continued pushing for it. NBC entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff famously advised it was “too New York” and “too Jewish,” but Ludwin even used funds from his specials budget to order four more episodes. Over time, “Seinfeld” grew to become a smash hit for NBC and an anchor of its 1990s Thursday comedy lineup.

During his 31 years at NBC, Ludwin had the unique experience of having worked with every “Tonight Show” host — Steve Allen and Jack Paar, albeit after their time on “Tonight,” as well as Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon. Ludwin was in charge of late-night programming during the late 2009/early 2010 tussle for the show between O’Brien and Leno. He also helped guide the network through the choppy waters of the Carson to Leno handoff.

Ludwin grew up in Rocky River, Ohio. He graduated in 1970 from Miami University, which he supported throughout his career, returning often to talk with students.

Ludwin’s survivors include his brother, Daniel Ludwin, a niece and a nephew.

--Published in Variety


A Tribute to Rick Ludwin -