Rick Ludwin was the unsung hero of “Seinfeld.” That’s how Alan Horn, Walt Disney Studios chairman and former head of “Seinfeld” producer Castle Rock Entertainment, remembered the longtime NBC executive who died Nov. 10 at the age of 71.
Ludwin was instrumental in getting the beloved “show about nothing” on to NBC as a regular series. Castle Rock had produced an offbeat pilot starring Jerry Seinfeld as a standup comedian in New York. NBC decided to burn off “The Seinfeld Chronicles” pilot with an airing in the dog days of summer — on July 5, 1989.
Horn told Variety that Castle Rock figured the show had no future at NBC. But Ludwin, who ran NBC’s late-night and variety specials division, still thought the “Seinfeld” concept had potential. He went out on a limb with his boss, then-NBC chief Brandon Tartikoff, to prove it.
Ludwin “went to Brandon Tartikoff after he saw that the pilot was being burned off. Rick had (the budget for) two one-hour specials, and he said he’d give them to Brandon so we could make four more episodes,” Horn told Variety.
Horn and former Castle Rock partner Glenn Padnick recalled that NBC executives made only one suggestion to producers after the pilot aired, and it was a good one. “Seinfeld” gained traction with critics slowly but surely. By the 1993-1994 season, it was the most-watched comedy series in primetime.
“NBC had one note and one note only after the pilot: Put a girl in it,” Horn said. “Julia Louis-Dreyfus was not in the pilot – and it made all the difference in the world.”
“Seinfeld” remained among the top three most-watched series in primetime for the rest of its nine-season run, which wrapped in May 1998. In 1996 the show began its record-setting run in syndication, generating north of $2 billion in revenue, and counting. In September, Netflix ponied up an estimated $500 million to snare streaming rights to the “Seinfeld” archive of 180 episodes away from Hulu beginning in 2021.
All of those ratings and all of those riches might never have materialized if not for the faith and creativity demonstrated by Ludwin.
“So we made the four episodes, and ‘Seinfeld’ took off,” Horn said. “Rick was the unsung hero. He cheered us from the sidelines and we never forgot him.”