During its 90s primetime reign, Seinfeld introduced plenty of oddball characters to pop culture’s landscape, none more memorable than the rhythmically speaking clothier J. Peterman, played by John O’Hurley. O’Hurley’s instantly recognizable voice has led to an extensive public speaking career as well as theatrical gigs such as Spamalot’s King Arthur (on tour and in Las Vegas) and silver-tongued lawyer Billy Flynn in Chicago (on tour and on Broadway). He’s hosted Family Feud, voiced numerous cartoon characters and landed the runner-up spot in the 2005 debut season of Dancing with the Stars. Heck, he even bought the J. Peterman brand! Now the silver-haired actor is back at Broadway’s Ambassador Theatre for his second stint in Chicago. Just before his “Razzle Dazzle” return, O’Hurley chatted with Broadway.com about being Billy, his tips for succeeding on DWTS and why he missed out on the Seinfeld reunion.
What brings you back to Chicago?
I love the show. I’ve been going back and forth between the Chicago and Spamalot tours since I last did Chicago on Broadway. It’s fun to play Billy, the kind of man who is slick, self-involved and makes no apologies for himself. He loves what he is and loves what he does. He’s not necessarily the brightest lawyer, but he’s always thinking on his feet. I’m a businessman, so I understand his sense of getting things done.
Earlier this year Chicago welcomed the 40th actor to play Billy in this revival. How do you make your Billy unique?
I get every conceivable laugh you can get out of that script. I have worked over and massaged every line and punctuation point in the show to milk as much humor out of it as I possibly can. Billy has to be charming, but the show has to be funny. I also like to give Billy a sense of danger and “Don’t cross me—this is what I do.” I like to play with his rhythm of speech. Sometimes I’ll speak very fast, and sometimes I’ll slow down and stop. To be a successful lawyer you have to be an enormous thespian in the courtroom, and I think part of Billy’s intrigue is that he is an actor. You have to step back and be able to make a theatrical presentation of the case that Billy is making.
As a first season vet of Dancing with the Stars, you were one of the show’s first celebrities to head to Chicago. Now everyone seems to do it.
Yeah, the door is open now, so I guess it’s where you go [laughs]. To stay alive, Chicago does a lot of stunt casting, but it certainly gives both women and men a chance to strut their stuff.
Do you still watch DWTS?
I tune in from time to time. The show’s a little overproduced for my liking now. It’s lost its innocence. It’s almost like everyone there is already promoting themselves. I know a few people who’ve been approached for next year’s competition and they’ve called me asking, “What do I do to get a head start?” I almost feel like I’m coaching the next group.
What advice do you give?
“Go somewhere you can make a fool of yourself in a room and learn to move.” The most difficult thing for actors who’ve never danced is unlearning rather than learning. Once you drop that fear of moving to music and letting your body actually make a statement with music, learning the dance steps becomes much easier. What makes most people look awkward is they don’t feel like a dancer. All I had to do was tell myself, “I’m a dancer,” and I became a dancer.
It’s been 12 years since Seinfeld ended. Do people still approach you about the show?
All the time! Every day! The P.S. to that story is that the year after Seinfeld ended, I bought the J. Peterman Company. We’re having a board meeting during my run in Chicago, and afterwards I’ll go out to lunch with the real J. Peterman. We’ll walk down Madison Avenue and every other New Yorker will stop us and say, “Hey Peterman!”…and they’re not talking to him. It’s the greatest act of identity theft ever performed.
Did you watch the semi-reunion on Curb Your Enthusiasm last year?
I didn’t have a chance to. I was supposed to be in it! They had written a whole bunch of stuff for me, but unfortunately [the filming date] was the night I opened Spamalot in San Francisco. All [the Seinfeld actors] were playing themselves, so the stuff they had written for me was this idea that [like Peterman] I spoke in these long, uninteresting monologues that went nowhere.
Your son William is three years old. What’s it like having a young child relatively late in life?
It’s easily the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done. I’m a better father now than I ever could have been earlier in my career, when trying to find a job was so important. Now I have the means to give him 100% of my attention. There isn’t a day when I wake up and can’t wait to see him. He’s always with us on the road, watching from the wings. On tour, during the entr’acte, the band warms up with a Dixie version of “Mr. Cellophane,” and I send him out with his little toy trumpet to stand next to the conductor and play. The audience just went nuts over it. He’s grown up backstage, and it’s produced a remarkable character to him. He’s not afraid to sing and dance.
Speaking of family, you hosted Family Feud for four years. Any crazy memories there?
Some of the stupidest answers I ever heard! My favorite will always be when the question at the face-off table was, “Name a classic movie that starts with C,” and the guy hits the buzzer and says, “Seabiscuit.” Mostly people would have deer-in-the-headlight syndrome, but once a grandmother came along and we asked, “Name something you’d do on a first date to make yourself appear more romantic,” and she looks at me and goes, “Maybe stuff your pants with a vegetable?”
Your recognizable voice has also lead to a prominent public speaking career.
I do a lot of motivational speaking with a speech entitled "The Peterman Guide to the Extraordinary Life." I talk about a simple premise: A man grabbed my arm once and said, “You can have an ordinary life or you can have extraordinary life." Those are the two choices every one of us has to make. People have written to me saying that the 45 minutes we spent together changed their lives. I enjoy speaking about it, and I’m writing a book and recording a video on it. It’ll be very theatrical and autobiographical.
Theatrical? Any chance we’ll see some of Billy’s song-and-dance moves?
Sure, I’ll add some music to it [laughs]. That’s what got Glee all those Emmy nominations!
See John O’Hurley in Chicago at the Ambassador Theatre.