Rick Ludwin, an NBC stalwart of three decades who proved his value to the network both as a trusted liaison to Johnny Carson and an early champion of Jerry Seinfeld, died Sunday in Los Angeles, according to the network. He was 71.
Ludwin launched his show-biz odyssey with one legendary funnyman — the future executive did some joke-writing for Bob Hope — and later cemented his legacy with another comedy icon by supporting the game-changing Seinfeld when other executives at NBC were skeptical of airing a show that was infamously “about nothing.”
Seinfled (1989-1998) became one of the most lucrative primetime ventures in television history but Ludwin’s primary focus at NBC was guiding the network’s specials and late-night programming. Taking over the speciality in 1989, Ludwin held the high-profile post through 2011. That 22-year tenure made him a linchpin figure for Saturday Night Live — it also put him in the crossfire of the late-night wars era as the network liaison to both The Tonight Show and The Late Show.
George Cheeks, vice chairman of NBCUniversal Content Studios, hailed Ludwin as a key player in historic successes for the network.
“The entire NBC family is deeply saddened today by the news of Rick Ludwin’s passing.” Cheeks said. “Rick left an indelible mark in his 30-plus years at the network, with a rich legacy that lives on to this day. From Carson to Fallon and Seinfeld, Rick was instrumental in many of our greatest successes. Our thoughts are with Rick’s family and loved ones as we remember a broadcasting legend and colleague.”
Ludwin was the trusted liaison to Carson and the lone “company man” allowed to venture into talk-show legend’s inner circle meetings just before the show’s weekday tapings.
“Johnny was always gracious to me. I could do a Bob Hope imitation, and he’d like to hear me do it. To get Johnny Carson to laugh, that was really great,” Ludwin told a University of Miami alumni publication in 2008. “I found out later that I was one of the few people he’d talk to before the show…I wasn’t Johnny Carson’s boss. He didn’t have a boss. I was his ‘network liaison.’ I worked with him.”
Ludwin was also the figure of trust who similarly oversaw Seinfeld during the sitcom’s illustrious nine-year run on NBC. Ludwin’s credibility and expertise secured his entree with Carson but the Seinfeld rapport was a result of Ludwin’s leap pf faith at a make-or-break juncture of the quirky show’s development.
The pilot for The Seinfeld Chronicles (as it was called at the time) had been a fizzle with focus groups and fared even worse with NBC chief Brandon Tartikoff who fretted that the show was “too Jewish” and “too New York” to deliver a major mainstream success. Ludwin trusted his instincts and staked money from the late night/specials budget to sustain the show during a key early juncture. The cost of keeping the Seinfeld project rolling forward? Ludwin had to abandon plans for a Bob Hope special to cover the costs of the sitcom’s Season 1.
Ludwn’s tenure with The Tonight Show began in the twilight of the Carson era (1962–1992) and endured through the arrival of the venerable show’s current host, Jimmy Fallon. The SNL cast when Ludwin’s tenure began: Dana Carvey,Mike Myers, Nora Dunn, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Victoria Jackson, Jon Lovitz, Dennis Miller, Kevin Nealon, Ben Stiller, A. Whitney Brown, Al Franken, and a newcomer named Mike Myers.
The genial Ludwin was born on May 27, 1948, in Cleveland, Ludwin attended Rocky River High School in Ohio and then graduated from the Midwest state’s Miami University in 1970. His next stop was Northwestern University for a master’s degree That earned him work at TV stations in Chicago and Detroit before he moved west to work on The Mike Douglas Show and write material for Hope. His early days in broadcasting were a factor years later when he joined NBC in 1980 as director of variety programs: his new boss, Tartikoff, had worked alongside Ludwin at WLS-TV in the Windy City.
Ludwin survived by his brother, Daniel L. Ludwin (and his wife Linda), niece Julie Honefenger (Scott), nephew Daniel B. Ludwin (Amy) and his great-nieces and -nephews Sara Hathaway, Dan Hathaway (Catalina), Caroline Helm and Jack Ludwin.