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.