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New Englander John O’Hurley talks about playing J. Peterman, as fans wait for ‘Seinfeld’ to hit Netflix

New England native John O'Hurley played Elaine's boss, J. Peterman, on Seinfeld.
New England native John O'Hurley played Elaine's boss, J. Peterman, on Seinfeld.Eddie Garcia Photography

“Elaine, this dry air is curing him like a Black Forest ham.”

As J. Peterman on “Seinfeld,” from 1995 to 1998, former Natick resident John O’Hurley delivered his share of quotable quotes and classic monologues.

Whether he was trying to free Elaine from the spell of opium (“The toll road of denial is a long and dangerous one. The price? Your soul.”) or pondering the meaning of Bosco with George, Peterman delivered memorable lines.

“I always loved the idea of that kind of poetic lunatic,” O’Hurley, 66, says. “Peterman was an intelligent buffoon.”

Born in Kittery, Maine, O’Hurley now lives part-time in Vermont. He grew up in Natick and West Hartford, Conn., before graduating from Providence College in ‘76. (“My fingerprints are all over New England,” he says.)

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In conversation, O’Hurley sounds at times like his most famous character, in his vocabulary and distinct cadence. When asked how long he lived in Maine, he answers with what could be a Peterman line: “Just long enough to put me in a lobster pot, stick me on simmer.”

He recalls a moment on “The Tonight Show” when as he was musing on a life in acting, Jay Leno “caught my rather pensive glare.”

As O’Hurley puts it, he’s lived his life “in iambic pentameter.” And his memory is remarkable. He recites Peterman monologues word for word, as well as a 300-word Peterman-style monologue he wrote for his appearances on cameo.com — where users can pay for celebrity-recorded videos or video calls. It involves a journey into a jungle, a toilet, and an inhaled poison dart that “ended up shish-kebabing my uvula.”

We Seinfeld fans are legion; its lines are part of our lexicon, yada yada yada. When the series left Hulu this summer, that was Major News. When Netflix (finally) revealed the series premiere, it made headlines.

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With the Show About Nothing poised to hit Netflix Oct. 1, I called O’Hurley to talk all things “Seinfeld.”

Q. So how did you end up on the show?

A. I had a series on ABC at the time called “A Whole New Ballgame.” It was canceled on a Wednesday morning. I was out to dinner that night with my manager, crying into my beer, and [he said] Larry David’s office called and said: “We heard about the cancellation, we have this guest [spot], we think John could really chew it up.”

I said, “Tell him no. I’m still licking my wounds.” The following day, my manager said: “Get out of bed; go have fun with this.” I always allow myself 24 hours to mourn anything, so that fit within the time period.

I went over to” Seinfeld,” they hadn’t finished the script yet — They handed me [a J. Peterman] catalog, and said, “Read this. We want you to sound the way the catalog is written.” It looked to be this Hemingway-style adventure series, a 1940s radio drama combined with bad Charles Kuralt. That was the genius of the character — he was this legend in his own mind.

When they finished the first episode, Elaine was working for Peterman. Everyone turned to me and said: “Welcome to your new job.” Who knew? I literally said no to it. I can only imagine how different my life would’ve been.

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes wearing the J. Peterman "urban sombrero" on an episode of Seinfeld.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes wearing the J. Peterman "urban sombrero" on an episode of Seinfeld.NBC

Q. How long did it take before you felt you had a handle on the character?

A. I would say the second episode. The first episode, I really was a mild version of [Peterman.] But you look at Kramer when he first came on the show, and he was a mild version of what he became.

In the second episode [”The Secret Code”] I realized the poetic gravitas of this character. We were in the restaurant, and I added a line in. I came up to Jerry and George: “Elaine just called, she won’t be joining us. Not to worry, I’ll tell the maitre’d it’ll just be the three bulls.” They went nuts over it. I said, “OK. I get this character.”

Every time I got a script, I looked at it as a piece of music. My voice would go up! [pause] and hold— and come back down. There was a sense of musicality to his expression. I’d [draw] arrows up and down, to remind me of intonations. I used to rehearse my monologues the same way Kramer would rehearse his skid-stops.

Q. You mentioned “The Secret Code.” What are your favorite Peterman episodes?

A. I think the funniest was [”The Frogger.”] It was the best execution of what that show was. When they took the Frogger machine with George’s high score and moved it across the street and George ended up in a Frogger game of traffic.

And the wedding cake scene is just beautifully written. Saying to Elaine: “Do you have any idea what happens to a butter-based frosting after six decades in a poorly ventilated English basement? I have a feeling that what you are about to go through will be punishment enough.”

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Q. That’s a classic.

A. Just beautiful writing. Comedic in a scholarly way. That’s what I loved about the show. My character was always so erudite.

I [also] love [”The Foundation”] when I go find myself in Myanmar: “You most likely know it as Myanmar, but it will always be Burma to me.”

Q. What was it like to be a part of it?

A. You knew you were in St. Peter’s Cathedral. I used to say to the extras: This is something you’ll watch with your grandchildren.

They were the four smartest actors I’ve never worked with. I would put a big circle around Jason Alexander. In the hands of any other chubby comedic character actor, that would have been just another cliché role. But Jason found a way to make George a tour de force. George was passionately mediocre. No matter what happened, George was determined to swing from the middle rung of the ladder of life.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. She tweets @laurendaley1.



Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twiiter @laurendaley1.