Rick Ludwin, Former NBC Late Night Executive and 'Seinfeld' Champion, Dies at 71

Courtesy of NBC Photo
Rick Ludwin

He ran specials and late night at NBC for more than 30 years.

Rick Ludwin, the legendary NBC executive who wrote jokes for Bob Hope, was a Seinfeld champion from the start and ran specials and late night programming at NBC for more than 30 years, died Sunday in Los Angeles after a brief illness. He was 71.

Ludwin's tenure at NBC spanned the early days of Saturday Night Live and iterations of The Tonight Show hosted by Johnny Carson and Jay Leno as well at the Late Night franchise with David Letterman, Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon.

He commissioned and famously backed Seinfeld amid widespread doubt among fellow NBC executives that Jerry Seinfeld's "show about nothing" could be a contender. He also was at the center of the controversial decision in 2010 to cut short O'Brien's Tonight Show tenure and reinstall Leno.

After 31 years at NBC, Ludwin was replaced in September 2011 by Paul Telegdy as president of alternative programs and late night. He became a consultant and left the next year.

"The entire NBC family is deeply saddened today by the news of Rick Ludwin's passing," NBCUniversal Content Studios vice chairman George Cheeks said Monday 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. 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."

Born in Cleveland on May 27, 1948, Ludwin attended Rocky River High School and then started his career as host of the comedy-variety show Studio 14 at WPDT, the TV station at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. After graduating in 1970 and earning a master's at Northwestern, he wrote jokes for Hope and worked for Chicago and Detroit TV stations and then for The Mike Douglas Show.

He joined NBC in 1980 as director of variety programs, hired by entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff (both had worked at WLS-TV in Chicago).

He did dozens of comedy specials starring Hope — a fellow Clevelander — and was the rare NBC executive included in Carson's inner circle before each Tonight Show taping.

"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 said in 2007. "I found out later that I was one of the few people he'd talk to before the show."

Ludwin was promoted to executive vp late-night and primetime series in 2005 after 16 years as a senior vp.

"The headline for Rick Ludwin should be 'NBC's unsung hero.' I absolutely believe that," Warren Littlefield, the former head of NBC Entertainment who was Ludwin's boss for years, told the Chicago Tribune back then. "Rick goes down as an NBC patron saint."

In 1989, with The Seinfeld Chronicles pilot testing poorly with focus groups and NBC running out of options, the network used funds from Ludwin's late night and specials department to order four more episodes "for a more comprehensive audience experience," NBC noted.

The network had to scrap a planned Hope special to pay for the first season. Ludwin then looked after Seinfeld until its 1998 conclusion.

Starting in 2008, he donated Seinfeld scripts, papers, documents and photos to the King Library at Miami of Ohio. Each year, Ludwin returned to the school to talk to students, and a TV studio on the Oxford campus was renamed for him in March.

Events to celebrate his life will be held in Los Angeles and Cleveland on dates to be determined.