Talking With John O’Hurley

john-ohurley 75Silence in a room with 3,000 people is just as compelling as laughter because you know they’re listening.

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On Friday, September 20, 2013, St. Louis welcomes Chicago at the Fabulous Fox Theatre. As he has several times in the past (and will, according to him in the future), John O’Hurley stars as the nefarious lawyer, Billy Flynn. Additional casting includes Paige Davis as Roxie Hart, Terra C. MacLeod as Velma Kelly, Carol Woods as Matron “Mama” Morton and Todd Buonopane as Amos Hart. Here are some highlights from a chat with Mr. O’Hurley.

I’m probably the only person is America who never saw Seinfeld. Can you talk about your experience as the long-term character, J. Peterman?

Well, I didn’t watch it first run, so you and I are together on that. It was an extraordinary experience to be on the championship show on the championship season[s]. And you knew that when you were on Seinfeld you were going to be doing something that was a part of television history, and we had a great deal of reverence for that. The show had been doing so well and had even sold into syndication early. It was among the smartest group of people I’ve ever worked with, and an opportunity to play a character that was so oddly written, he probably couldn’t have existed on any other show. If it is an iconic character, it owes that distinction to the quality of writing on the show. They would just take anything and make it more funny.

You and John Peterman then revived the company, I understand.

Yes. The real “J. Peterman” and I, who were joined at the wrist and ankles throughout my five years on the show, put the company back together after it had gone belly up the year after I left the show. A year after that, [Peterman] said, ‘I’ve got the intellectual property rights back. Do you want to revive the company using our parallel strengths?’ and I said ‘Sure.’ It’s running just beautifully right now, and if you look at the catalog or go to jpeterman.com, you’ll see the same items we parodied every week on Seinfeld.

You grew up in one of my favorite places, Maine, and your background is all New England. Can you talk a bit about that? Do you still consider that ‘home’?

Oh, I guess I do. We still have a summer place in Vermont. Yeah, all of my allegiances are back there—the sports teams I follow, my [Providence] college where I’m still on the Board of Directors. I keep a tight affiliation with a lot of the more memorable elements of New England.

How did you decide on the varied career you have now in show business?

I went to New York in the summer of 1981. I had graduated five years earlier from college, and I was kind of like a deer in the headlights at that point. I knew what I was doing—I had majored in acting and minored in voice, but I had no idea how to make a living at it, so I went into advertising and public relations until I realized I wasn’t doing what I wanted. So, I made a beeline for New York in 1981, and I got cast in my first show on Broadway two days later, and I never looked back.

Wow. What was the show?

I would say it’s the worst show ever done, but according to [critic] John Simon, it’s the second worst musical in the last quarter of the 20th century. It was called Eternal Love, a vanity production by a man who made his money in motivation tapes back in the ‘50s was obsessed with the Abelard and Heloise story. It was a walking disaster—“Springtime for Hitler” is what it was (laughs). [Incidentally, when I asked, Simon had picked Moose Murders as the #1 worst show.] It closed, mercifully, the night after we opened.

What got you noticed?

In theater, I was taking over for a lot of people in established hits, Pirates of Penzance, Mass Appeal, Fifth of July. . . but when I started off in daytime television in New York, I did get more wide recognition. I spent the evenings in the theatre and daytime at ABC. I started on The Edge of Night [a long-running soap opera, now cancelled] and then in ’84, I went to a new soap, Loving. I was the first twin brothers on daytime there, and that got a little bit of a stir. The odd side note of that is that I needed to have a body double for the twin scenes, and Chazz Palmentieri was hired for that. He’d never been an actor, and his other job was as a bouncer at the Limelight. He doubled me for years. I also met my best friend to this day, who I played opposite. He was my best man twice, Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad.

You’ve done a wide variety of things, raising money for the Epilepsy Foundation in memory of your sister, announcing the National Dog Show on Thanksgiving Day for the last 12 years. I assume you are fond of dogs.

Of course. I’ve written two best-selling books [about dogs], and I have another one coming out in about two weeks, this time for children. [The Perfect Dog will be released Oct. 31, 2013.] I’ve always had a dog since childhood, and it’s a large part of my life.

They do become a part of the family, speaking of which, you have a six-year-old?

Six and a half, Charlie, he’s in first grade. The children’s book is something I wrote to him last year and then performed on The National Dog Show. It’s a kind of Dr. Seuss-style poem. He is so entertaining—just a source of information and joy to us. He’s also the politest child in the world.

I’ve seen many pictures of you online, and often you are golfing.

Oh, yes. It’s how I met my wife, and it’s a big part of our lives and of the dynamic of our marriage, as well. We play everywhere together, we’re very competitive with each other, and it’s more fun to play golf with her than it is to do anything else by myself. We even played miniature golf last night with our son as our family night.

You also have been a game show host. . . .

Yep. Family Feud and To Tell the Truth. I did four seasons of Family Feud and three of To Tell the Truth. I love it. I enjoy people, and I like getting into the games because I think they’re so much fun. It’s kind of like having a group over to your house every night. You just play the game, forget the cameras are there, know that your job is to be the host and make it as funny as possible, and move the show along—it’s just an enjoyable way to make a living. Ultimately, I left because Family Feud was moving to Orlando, and that didn’t fit my family life or my theatre schedule. I was doing Spamalot, and it was just too difficult to make it all work.

That leads us to your stage work. I want to begin by asking you about something you said in an interview with Allison Walker that intrigued me: ‘Well, whether I’m doing a game show, whether I’m walking on stage or—it doesn’t matter—I always believe that if you leap, the net will appear. Once you learn that, then you have no reason to be nervous about anything.’ How did you arrive at that idea?

Well, nobody had a more developed sense of stage fright that I did. I grew up with it, I knew I wanted to be an actor, but I was just scared to be one. Even through my early years in New York in the ‘80s, and I finally sat myself down and said, ‘If this is going to be my chosen occupation, I have to figure out what this thing is and how to get through it.’ I have kind of a two-step prayer that I said to myself which was, 1) I’m going to have fun, take the “leap,” and 2) I was going to discover something that night that was going to surprise me about the role that I’d never found in it before. It kept me present and aware of every moment and in that moment. It deepened me as an actor because I began to notice things beyond my preformed conclusions I’d drawn during rehearsal time. I [became] addicted to the idea that I was going to have fun out there, and it made me relax. I’ve taken that with me all through my career, especially when you get into something like a game show—whether taped or live to tape—you remember that everything you need is inside you, and there’s no reason to worry about it. So, you leap and the net will appear, whether the work is unscripted like a game show or scripted, like a Broadway show. What you have in your head, your whole database, will get you through the show. Trust that, and everything comes out fine.

Speaking of game shows, of a sort, anyway, you appeared on the first season of Dancing With the Stars. How was that?

It became a much different show [in later seasons]. . .  one benefit was that it gave me my name back. Before that, I was known more as “J. Peterman,” then people realized I was John O’Hurley playing a character named J. Peterman. Also, I think it was one of the things that contributed to my moving to Broadway. I did Chicago right after Dancing With the Stars and it made an easy transition. There was press behind the show [because of DWTS] and the role was right for me. It was a seamless thing.

So, you’re coming full circle because you’re back, literally, in Chicago.

I’ve probably done this show more than any other human being. I’ve been doing it since 2005; I did the 10th Anniversary show, the 15th Anniversary show, and I’m sure I’ll do the 20th. I may be hobbling through my 25th (laughs). No, it’s just one of the characters I like to keep in my quiver and the other is King Arthur in Spamalot. [O’Hurley appeared in Spamalot at The Muny this summer.] These are the two most enjoyable leading men for me to play at this stage in my life. They’re both complicated, and I enjoy them both in different ways.

Doesn’t playing Arthur require a lot more stamina than Billy Flynn?

Only because of the way the show is staged. Arthur never leaves the stage—Arthur is actually J. Peterman a thousand years earlier—he’s a legend in his own mind. Billy is dark and dangerous, he’s suave, but there is also a part of him that nobody ever seems to pick up on—the notion of a paternal quality, which I really like to play in a certain moment in the show. It’s like throwing an ace when you know you can throw it, and I think it endears [the character] to people when you show the paternal side of him.

What do you enjoy most about doing Chicago?

I love the monologues that he has, and I add some pauses into the show where nothing happens. No one else seems to do this. I love to hear the silence of the audience. Silence in a room with 3,000 people is just as compelling as laughter because you know they’re listening. It even makes them a little uncomfortable, and I like that. Yet, it’s necessary at certain points, and you can’t be afraid to use the pause.

The ventriloquist number [“We Both Reached for the Gun”] looks hard. Is it?

Oh, no. And when I think about it, that is the most brilliant moment in musical theatre. If you think of what they needed to accomplish at that moment as to the text, the circumstances of the play at that moment, the cleverness of the music—everything just comes together in one spectacular explosion of song and choreography. If you watch that, and you don’t love it, then American musical theatre is just not your medium.

I like shows that really force the audience to listen, rather than look at these picture-perfect sets with helicopters crashing on stage—these opuses we’re doing don’t satisfy me sitting in the audience as much as having to create stuff in my mind, letting my imagination entertain me as much as the stuff you’re showing me on stage. There’s a certain majesty to opera when they bring the elephants on stage and everyone is singing, I get that, I really do. But I also get the moment when simple truths are spoken and explained and all you do is simply paint the imagination. It’s infinitely more difficult to do as a performer—to create the image with your posture, your voice, everything you’re doing is so much more important.

Do you have any dream roles, anything you’d love to play that you have yet had the opportunity to do?

I do have a couple, and I’ve actually talked to [St. Louis-based Fox Associates producer] Mike Isaacson about reviving Man of La Mancha the way it was done originally. It was written for twelve trumpets—just those, plus guitar and percussion. I’d love to hear that again because of its triumphant sound—really spectacular. Also, it’s one of those perfect musicals that is just timeless, it doesn’t get in the way of certain trends in the theatre. It just always stands on its own, and I think the music in it is some of the most beautiful ever written. I don’t think there’s a weak number.

The other part would be the psychiatrist in Equus. I believe [Peter] Shaffer to be the most brilliant writer in 20th century drama.

Do you have anything in the pipeline?

The new book coming out in a couple of weeks, then The National Dog Show, and after that, I’ll be back on tour. I’m also planning on some television after the first of the year. Meanwhile, there is Chicago.| Andrea Braun

Chicago runs from September 20-22. Tickets are available now through MetroTix. Contact www.chicagothemusical.com for more information. 

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