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'Seinfeld's' John O'Hurley Talks About J. Peterman's Management Style

June 21, 2012
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John O'Hurley

When John O'Hurley was selected to play the role of J. Peterman on Seinfeld he knew nothing about the real-life clothing entrepreneur John Peterman or his famous catalog.

"They handed me the J. Peterman catalog and told me they wanted the character to sound like the catalog reads," O'Hurley says. "Everything was an adventure.

"I always looked at his character as surreality rather than reality. Peterman is kind of a [late] 20th century Mr. Magoo, a raving lunatic who somehow managed to keep the company together."

O'Hurley, who more recently has been performing the role of Billy Flynn in a long-running touring production of Chicago, says Peterman had the "same relationship" with Julia-Louis Dreyfus' Elaine Benes character as Lou Grant did with Mary Richards on the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

That relationship created what O'Hurley describes as the "Peterman Guide to Business Management."

"I never fired Elaine for her management skills or for being addicted to poppy seeds," O'Hurley says. "I never fired her for digesting my [$29,000] piece of wedding cake that belonged to the Duchess of Windsor or for gross overexpenditures or for misrepresenting the 'urban sombrero.' But I did fire her for not liking The English Patient.''

It turns out that life imitated art because after Seinfeld completed its nine-year run in 1998, O'Hurley became an investor in the J. Peterman Co., and he remains a part-owner.

He says the real J. Peterman follows an alternative lifestyle: "He wouldn't take a cruise ship to Costa Rica but would take a freighter there for $20 a night and have drinks with the captain."

O'Hurley's main regret from Seinfeld is that many outstanding Peterman monologues ended up on the cutting-room floor.

"The writers fell in love with [Peterman] because it gave them the chance to write in long form rather than one-liners," he says. "Peterman was the master of the monologue. Sadly, most of that was cut from the show.

"You could do a show on the Peterman monologues that never made the cut. What you saw was maybe a tenth of what I said. But it is a credit to the writers that they made the second-tier characters as rich and interesting as the main characters."

Richard Rothschild is a writer based in Oak Park, Illinois. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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