November 15, 2019

Remembering Rick Ludwin: Miami alum and NBC executive

Rick Ludwin, a Miami University grad, NBC executive and one of the minds behind “Seinfeld” and “Saturday Night Live,” died Sunday, Nov. 10, in Los Angeles.

Rick Ludwin born May 27, 1943 in Cleveland, was one of the masterminds behind some of NBC’s most popular programming like “Saturday Night Live” and “Seinfeld.” Photo courtesy of NBCUniversal.

Ludwin, 71, was not a garden-variety television executive, and many of his former colleagues have lauded him for his more cordial approach to TV production.

“He was so much of our program,” said Howard Kleiman, professor emeritus of Media & Culture at Miami. “He was somebody who was at the top of their game, but never forgot where he came from.” 

In an interview with The Miami Student, during a visit back in 2015, it was clear Ludwin’s passion for TV wasn’t motivated by money or recognition.

“There’s something really exciting about being around creative people and I love it,” Ludwin said. “I hope I never lose my excitement over being a part of that."

Following graduation from Miami in 1970, Ludwin began his TV career with stints in Chicago and Detroit and then worked on “The Mike Douglas Show” in Philadelphia. In 1980, he was hired by NBC and went to work in late-night television with some of the most prominent names in the business. He worked with the greats at NBC like Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and later on with Jimmy Fallon and Seth Myers. He also worked alongside Lorne Michaels to help produce “Saturday Night Live.”

Whether the praise came from faculty at his Alma Mater or stars who worked with him, a common thread was how warm and good-natured Ludwin was.

“In a town like L.A., full of people who aren’t very nice and only in the business for themselves, Rick was a cut above… No, several cuts above,” said Bruce Drushel, chairman of Miami’s Department of Media Journalism & Film.

In a tribute to Ludwin on his Monday, Nov. 11 show, Conan O’Brien spoke of Ludwin’s humility.  “Unlike most everybody in show business, Rick didn’t go out of his way to try and get credit,” O’Brien said.  

Even though Ludwin didn’t actively seek validation or credit for his achievements, many people within the industry credit Ludwin with establishing “Seinfeld” as a key fixture of NBC’s primetime programming from 1989 to 1998. Most of NBC’s top brass didn’t believe “Seinfeld” would ever be the cultural phenomenon that it eventually became. NBC first dismissed the show as “too New York,” arguing that the humor would not land with the network’s wider audience.

Though he operated as a producer behind the scenes, Ludwin had a major impact on American television with shows such as “Seinfeld,” “the Tonight Show” and “Saturday Night Live.” Photo provided by Miami University.

“There was only one guy at NBC who really did like the show,” said Jerry Seinfeld in an interview with Conan O’Brien in 2009. “And if it weren’t for him, you’d be holding an empty box,” Seinfeld said to O’Brien, who was holding a complete collection of Seinfeld on DVD, during an interview on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” (which Ludwin also produced).

Ludwin took the budget he had for special programming at NBC and poured much of it into “Seinfeld,” and the rest is history. Some of that history is housed at Miami’s King Library, where Ludwin donated several scripts of the acclaimed TV show as well as many tapings of the public access show he helped run on Miami’s former TV station as an undergraduate.

Ludwin hailed from Rocky River, Ohio, a suburb west of Cleveland. No matter how successful Ludwin became, he did not forget about his roots back in Ohio. He returned to Oxford annually, to help teach courses, advise students and provide scholarships.

“There were students who were able to finish at Miami thanks to the Rick Ludwin scholarships,” said Kleiman.

Miami never forgot Ludwin, either. In March of this year, the university dedicated Williams Hall’s television studio in his name.

Rick Ludwin speaks at the dedication the studio that bears his name in Williams Hall at Miami last March. Photo provided by Miami University.

Drushel said he was happy the board approved the dedication of the studio when they did. “Rick was both a product and a demonstration of what students can do here, and a demonstration of what an alum can do as well,” he said. “I don’t ever expect to meet anyone like Rick Ludwin ever again.”

Other stars that had the pleasure of working with Ludwin shared their condolences via Twitter.

SNL actor and standup comic, John Mulaney tweeted as part of a thread, “He backed people he believed in and made his opinion known in a professional and thoughtful way," Mulaney wrote. "But he would not back down. And so one day he was not the head of NBC late night. And that’s none of my business. Rick never said a bad word about anyone.”

Mulaney, who just performed at Miami last month for the university’s Family Weekend added in another tweet, “We were supposed to get lunch when I played his Alma Mater, Miami of Ohio a few weeks ago. But he canceled due to his health. And so no more lunches... So should anyone tell you that you have to be an [expletive] to make an impact in entertainment, I offer you Rick Ludwin.”

Ludwin’s nephew, Daniel B. Ludwin confirmed that he died “after a brief illness.” He is also survived by his brother, Daniel L. Ludwin and a niece, Judy Honefenger.