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Rick Ludwin, NBC executive who championed ‘Seinfeld,’ dies at 71

NEW YORK — Rick Ludwin, who oversaw late-night programming at NBC for many years but is probably best known for backing the sitcom “Seinfeld” when it seemed the network might drop it before the show started its storied run, died on Sunday at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 71.

The cause was organ failure, said Daniel Ludwin, his nephew.

Mr. Ludwin — who at the time was in charge of NBC’s late-night shows, including “Saturday Night Live,” “The Tonight Show,” and “Late Night With David Letterman,” as well as specials — was part of the “Seinfeld” origin story as it evolved from a possible one-time 90-minute special to fill in for “SNL” to a weekly series.

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But when the pilot for what was then called “The Seinfeld Chronicles” was screened for audiences, they were underwhelmed.

“The test audiences felt the supporting cast was not strong enough and Jerry himself was a weak lead,” Mr. Ludwin said in “Seinfeld: How It Began” (2004), a documentary that was part of a “Seinfeld” DVD release.

But Mr. Ludwin — who was not a comedian but had once sold jokes to Bob Hope — felt Seinfeld had an original voice that needed a champion and was willing to take a chance on the show, created by Seinfeld and Larry David, about four misanthropic friends in Manhattan.

“I felt we had a show there,” Mr. Ludwin said in the documentary, recalling his pitch to Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC Entertainment: “I’ll take two hours out of my specials budget, split that into four half-hours, and that will be our order for ‘Seinfeld.’ ”

The four shows ran on Thursday nights in May and June of 1990 as a prelude to the 12 episodes that began airing the next January and a full season that began that fall. It was not an immediate hit but eventually became one of the seminal sitcoms of all time.

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Mr. Ludwin also worked with Johnny Carson during his last years as “Tonight Show” host. He said he was the rare NBC executive Carson admitted to his inner circle.

“I could do a Bob Hope imitation and he’d like to hear me do it,” Mr. Ludwin said in a 2007 interview with The Miamian, the alumni magazine of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, which he attended. “I found out later that I was one of the few people he’d talk to before the show.”

Richard Adam Ludwin was born on May 27, 1948, in Cleveland. His father, Daniel, was the supervisor of parks and recreation in Rocky River, a suburb of Cleveland. His mother, Leanore Ludwin, owned a construction company.

Rick’s early fascination with television found an outlet at Miami University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications. While there, he hosted a comedy-variety series on the campus TV station.

He was hired by NBC Entertainment as director of variety programs in 1980 — a job that let him work on prime-time specials with Hope — and eventually rose to become executive vice president of late-night programming and specials.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Ludwin was one of the NBC executives who presided over the difficult changeover of “Tonight” hosts from Carson to Jay Leno. Like many of the NBC executives in Burbank, Mr. Ludwin preferred the easygoing Leno to the irascible Letterman.

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Mr. Ludwin was also Conan O’Brien’s advocate when O’Brien struggled with bad ratings after replacing Letterman at “Late Night.”

“Pretty much everyone at the network thought I should be canceled,” O’Brien said on Monday night on his TBS show, “Conan.” “He argued passionately for me with the network, and he helped keep me on the air during those first two years.”

In 2011, Mr. Ludwin stepped down from NBC and served as a consultant for a year.

Seth Meyers, the current host of “Late Night,” said on his show Monday that when he was a writer at “SNL,” cherished gifts would sometimes arrive for him and other writers from Burbank in an interoffice envelope — a page from a sketch on which Mr. Ludwin wrote: “This played great. Rick.”

Meyers added: “You’d save them so when you had a bad week, you had this proof, according to a legend, that something you had written had played great.”

Meyers said the show’s writers inaugurated a new tradition: forging Mr. Ludwin’s encouraging words on pages of scripts that had bombed and slipping them under the writer’s door. “When I told Rick we had started to do that,” Meyers said, “he was delighted.”