Ludwin ran specials and late-night programming at NBC for over 30 years. He died Sunday in Los Angeles after a brief illness. He was 71.
His time at NBC spanned the early days of Saturday Night Live and iterations of The Tonight Show hosted by Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. He also worked on the Late Night franchise with David Letterman, O’Brien and Fallon.
Additionally, he commissioned and famously backed Seinfeld while other NBC executives speculated about whether the “show about nothing” could actually be a contender.
O’Brien remembered Ludwin by sharing that the executive was supportive of the host when he took over Late Night in 1993. “I had a very rocky start. Pretty much everyone at the network thought that I should be canceled, but one executive disagreed and that was Rick Ludwin,” he said. “Rick actually came to many of our early shows and watched what we were doing. He was brutally honest when he disagreed with our comedy or thought we’d gone too far, but he also thought that there was a lot of value to what we were trying to do.”
“Rick argued passionately for me with the network and he helped keep me on the air during those first two years,” O’Brien continued.
The host added that Ludwin stuck by him during “the Tonight Show fiasco,” in which O’Brien temporarily took over Leno’s hosting role. “After I ended up here at TBS, Rick was a regular visitor and he remained a loyal friend to our show. Always very encouraging and full of great stories,” he said.
“Rick Ludwin loved television and he loved comedy and he never lost his enthusiasm for the inspired and the silly. He was one of the most decent and honorable people I’ve met in my life,” he continued. “We will all miss him terribly.”
O’Brien added that Ludwin “didn’t go out of his way to try to get credit.” The host then shared a clip of Jerry Seinfeld on Late Night crediting Ludwin for saving Seinfeld. In the clip, both Seinfeld and O’Brien shared that Ludwin was responsible for the success of their shows.
Meyers also spoke about Ludwin on Late Night.
“I first met him when I joined SNL in 2001. By then, he was already a legend,” said Meyers.”He often came by and gave thoughtfully worded notes that were complimentary, but firm and fair.”
The host then shared a story about Ludwin. “When I was at SNL, Rick did this old-school thing that everybody loved. If you wrote a sketch that did well, he would get a copy of it and write, ‘This played great. Rick’ and then send it to you from his office in L.A.,” Meyers said. “It arrived in this strange inter-office envelope from a bygone era that when you saw it in your mailbox, you knew before you opened it that it was from Rick.”
“Those pages meant the world to us and we saved them because if you were having a bad week, you had this proof that according to a legend, something you had written had played great,” Meyers explained.
He added that when someone’s sketch would bomb, “we would get a page of the script and forge Rick’s signature and write, ‘This played great'” and slide it under the door of the writer who wrote it.” The host added that Ludwin was “delighted” when he learned about the joke.
Meyers said that it was fitting that the last time he saw Ludwin was at Seinfeld’s birthday party. “It’s also fitting to be talking about Rick on Late Night because there was nothing Rick liked more than talking about late night,” he said. “He was so giving and warm with his history and his stories and his time.”
“At his core, the best thing about Rick was how kind he was. He was kind in a way that was really important to the people he interacted with,” Meyers concluded. “He was kind in a way that was very unique for this world that we live in, in television and the entertainment industry. And he will just be deeply, deeply missed. I was so lucky to know him.”
Over on The Tonight Show, Fallon remembered Ludwin and honored his work at NBC.
The host shared that he knew Ludwin back when he worked on SNL before he took over for O’Brien on Late Night in 2009.
“I’ll never forget how generous he was with his time and advice, always saying the parts of the show that he liked and wanted to see more of,” Fallon shared. “He was just so encouraging.”
“Rick was also a walking encyclopedia of Late Night. He knew everything there was to know about TV and we all loved and respected him for it,” he continued. “I would email him. I was like, ‘What would happen on this date and what did he do?’ And he knew all these great stories. I just loved talking to him.”
He then shared how Ludwin “basically changed the face of television” by saving Seinfeld.
“We’re gonna miss Rick. I’m gonna miss his emails. I’m gonna miss running into him and I feel very lucky that I got to know him,” Fallon concluded.