Guy Ludwig was Gene Shalit’s producer for more than 20 years at TODAY – about half of Gene’s tenure at TODAY. He shares below some memories of Gene’s storied career.
TODAY: How did Gene Shalit get to TODAY?
Guy Ludwig: He was a writer for the Ladies' Home Journal and for Look magazine. He wrote a humor column. And an executive here at NBC happened to read one of his columns and called up the Ladies' Home Journal and said, "Mr. Shalit, do you talk anything like the way you write?" And Gene said, "Well, I think so." He goes, "Well, come on down here. We want to talk to you about broadcasting." So Gene came over to NBC.
And Gene looked in 1967 like he looks today. But no one at NBC had seen him. They'd only read his stuff. So he walked into this executive's office and the executive took one look at him and said, "Mr. Shalit, have you ever thought of radio?" They didn’t know how the public would react to someone who looked so different from people who were typically on TV in 1967.
Once Gene was on, he'd get letters like, "Who is this part-time anarchist that you have on television," because he was so different. But what resonated above his unusual appearance was his incredible wit, his remarkable intelligence. But he didn't pound you over the head with it. He amused you. He enlightened and amused whatever subject he was on.
TODAY: What did Gene do when he started on TODAY?
Ludwig: Well, Gene started on TODAY as a book reviewer in 1968 and he'd appear like once a month. And he didn't get too much hate mail. He got a lot of very positive mail from people who said, "This guy's really interesting." And that led to his doing reports on entertainment items or movies, cultural things. He had classical music, musicians on the show, something that TODAY had ignored for many years. But he did it in a very lighthearted way. So a flautist like James Galway would come on but he'd play Yankee Doodle Dandy on the Fourth of July. So he was a regular guy and Gene brought that out. And those little projects led to Gene being named as a co-host of TODAY in 1973. And that was a position he occupied until 1995.
For 22 years he was on every day and there with Bryant Gumbel and Deborah Norville, Katie Couric, and of course Matt Lauer, Ann Curry and Al Roker. He could always be counted upon to get that last little joke in or the little snapper before the end of the hour and an observation often keyed to something we had just seen because when Gene was on the set, he was watching and listening and paying attention to everything.
TODAY: What are some of your personal stories of Gene?
Ludwig: I came to work with Gene in 1989. My office was down a long hallway from his. There was no need to use a telephone as a result of this. Gene's door was open and so was mine. And he'd say, "Ludwig!" And I'd come running down the hall to find out whatever it was that he wanted and usually it was a sandwich.
And his office, like the Critic's Corner, was a very cluttered environment. So there'd be piles of paper. And when you walked in, you didn't dare touch anything 'cause things would topple over. And when I first worked with him, I thought to myself, "Oh my God, if I bring a script in here or he hands me something I'm not gonna know where it is." When I'd been with him about a month, he called me down to the office for something and I had some papers. And I said, "All right, well I need page six of the script. Do you have page six?" Gene looked around these piles, reached into one of them and produced page six. And that was this amazing thing about him. It looked like chaos and clutter and piles of things. And he could always find everything.
TODAY: What was the impact of his reviews?
Ludwig: Gene always said that it was the same service that you gave whether he liked or disliked a movie. And this is what he meant. He was on for so long that he'd say, "Well, Fred Burple's latest epic is called, Cinema Ludwig. And it stinks." Then, half the audience said, "Oh, Gene thinks it stinks. I'm not gonna go." The other half of the audience said, "Gene thinks it stinks? I'll love it. I'm going," because he was on for so long that people knew his taste.
TODAY: What are some of the highlights of Gene's career?
Ludwig: For many years Gene did interviews with famous people just as TODAY does now. But many years ago the world was different, and stars like Warren Beatty and Barbra Streisand were able to say, "To promote my movie, I will do one interview, or two interviews, a print interview." And this was acceptable at that time. And there were several people, among them, Robert De Niro, Ms. Streisand and Mr. Beatty, who only would talk to Gene.
Sophia Loren so trusted Gene as a television personality that when she returned from Italy after going through terrible legal difficulties there and a scandal of sorts, she flew to the United States specifically to be interviewed by Gene exclusively because she knew her story would be fairly told but also that Gene would be sensitive to some of the things about it that were sensitive to her. It was still a news interview. Gene was articulate and sensitive, but also got the story.
TODAY: What's Gene's role in the TODAY family?
Ludwig: Foxy grandpa. He's been the foxy grandpa for-- probably 30 years. And he's like Bugs Bunny. How old is he really?
TODAY: What does Gene love about TV? What is it about this business for him?
Ludwig: Gene has been on a single television program, TODAY, longer than any other person in the history of television. And this is throughout the world, we believe, certainly domestic television. There's been no one who did 41 years on one show. And certainly Gene's done other things along the way, radio and television specials, game shows, appearances with Tom Snyder and David Letterman. But someone who appeared on one show all the way through, continuously, there's only Gene.
So that brings us to, why did he stay? Well, a tremendous part of Gene's career is his love of movies. Before he was on television, he reviewed movies. He had an almost mystical respect for the story telling of movies. And in his reviews, he always goes back to that. What is the story? Where does the story take us? What do we get from it? Is it changing? Is it funny? Is it enlightening? It is sad? Does it teach us something that we didn't know? And that love of story, which also extends to his love of books and literature and even music, I think has galvanized him for years and years.
And one of the things that has struck me just in the last year, was Gene walking into a movie theater for a screening with absolute glee, looking forward to what he was going to see. And you'd say to yourself, "My God, how could you -- you've seen 2 million movies." "Yeah, but I've never seen this one!"
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.