As J. Peterman on “Seinfeld,” Providence College alum John O’Hurley delivered some of the hit show’s most quotable quotes and ridiculous monologues.
Now that “Seinfeld” is on Netflix, O’Hurley’s seeing a new generation of fans obsessed with that classic Peterman delivery.
O’Hurley honed his comedy chops at Providence College, where he was the college’s lone theater graduate in 1976 (“Consequently, I won the theater award,” he said). He returns to Providence a few times a year to dine on Federal Hill, and brings his one-man show, “A Man with Standards,” to Matunuck’s Theatre by the Sea on Aug. 1. It will mark a full-circle moment.
“Back in 1980, the year before I went to New York [to start out as an actor,] I went to Matunuck’s Theatre by the Sea to see ‘Chicago.’ I saw the musical I would eventually do on Broadway. Isn’t that something?” O’Hurley, 67, told the Globe in an interview. He played Billy Flynn in “more than 2,000″ productions of the musical.
From “Dancing with the Stars,” to hosting NBC’s “National Dog Show” (and lots of voice-acting, from “SpongeBob SquarePants” to “Kim Possible”) O’Hurley has a full resume — but acknowledges that it’s J. Peterman that’s made him permanent pop culture fixture. He talked to the Globe about his career, a never-aired “Seinfeld” monolog, and the crazy stories of his life.
Q: So what was it like studying theater at PC?
A: Well, there was no theater [laughs]. We had a converted classroom that was turned into a 99-seat studio. We performed on a small stage. That was it. We built the sets, painted them ourselves. You got your hands dirty, you learned a lot. Some people go to theater schools now and never set foot on stage. I was lucky — every single show, I was in. I also did one-man shows. It was an engaging experience from beginning to end. For nine years I was on the Board of Trustees of the school. I just left last year, actually.
I stay very close to the college. I’ve done my one-man show there. I stay very close to the Theater program. Every year they bring out students to Los Angeles, and I speak to them about the theater profession. Now it’s such an extensive program — you can be a theater major, directing major, film major.
Q: Tell me about your one-man show, “A Man with Standards.”
A: Well, I got a call from Michael Feinstein, a cabaret singer of renown, he called me maybe five or six years ago and said, “Do you have a one-man show?” I half-laughed and said, “Yeah, of course I do.” Or I will as soon as you hang up the phone. I literally hung up, went over to the piano, started writing, and by the end of the weekend, I had my show. It’s autobiographical, about growing up in ‘50s and ‘60s around the songs of the Great American Songbook— the “standards,” as we call them. I use the music to underscore the crazy stories of my life. It’s a lot of fun. I describe the show as: “Music, laughter, and only one tear.”
Q: And what are some of the crazy stories of your life?
A: When I was 3, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life: I was going to be an actor. People would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and with a sense of disgust I’d point to the television in the corner of the room and say: “Well I am an actor, so that’s what I’m going to be.” I always [thought]: I’m supposed to be there. I always knew that. It was just about connecting the dots.
I tell a funny story about Sinatra, who had enormous influence on my life. In the late ‘80s, I was invited to the Frank Sinatra Celebrity Golf Tournament, and you can imagine how excited I was. Then I found out all the celebrities were expected to go to Frank’s house afterward and perform. It was several hundred people — Don Rickles insulted two entire zip codes. Buddy Hackett did some of the most obscene material I’ve ever heard in my life.
About 2 in the morning, the piano player calls me over and says, “Whaddya wanna do?” I lean over and whisper something and he looked back at me as though I had just licked his ear.
He said, ‘Okaay.” And I proceeded to do the stupidest things I’ve ever done in my career: I sang Sinatra to Sinatra. When the music stopped, nobody applauded. Everyone just looked at Frank.
Sinatra was sitting there with a twinkle in his eye, on his 30th scotch, and said, “You know, that was a song Joe Raposo wrote for me to sing to my wife. Were you singing to my wife?” I said “No sir, I wasn’t.” I don’t even remember what I mumbled. But as I walked back past him to the wall that I was holding up, he just kind of lightly brushed my leg in a spot I have never washed since. He said, “You sounded good.” That’s the only encouragement I have ever gotten, and the last time I ever needed it.
Q: [laughs] That’s great. So when you bring the show back here, I know you like dining out in Providence.
A: I’m always on Federal Hill wolfing down some Italian specialty.
Q: What’s a favorite spot?
A: Andino’s. I’ll sit at the bar and have my meal. It’s become a hang-out for me when I’m back in town.
Q: How did you go from being PC’s only theater grad to “Seinfeld”? What was your journey like?
A: Well, it was curious. Senior year, I was scared to death of the business of acting. I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t know how to make living at it. And we didn’t have any theater grads that I could talk to.
I went back to West Hartford, lived with my parents as many kids do, and went into the next-most theatrical thing I could think of: advertising and public relations. I worked for an ad agency, then PR for Yale School of Medicine, then to the American National Red Cross. I was moving up the corporate echelon in PR rather quickly. It was seducing me. Then I realized I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. The death of my best friend in an automobile accident knocked some sense into me: I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing, but he was. So I set a plan for myself to move to New York in September 1981. Long story short, I got my first show 48 hours after arriving, and I haven’t stopped working since.
Q: What was that?
A: The worst musical in New York: “Eternal Love.” It was just awful. But I stayed on stage four years, doing musical theater. From there I discovered daytime television, and I became Mr. Daytime. That move to TV made me realize I could take the decimal point and move it over one. And if I moved to LA, I could move it over another decimal point.
So in the late ‘80s that I moved to LA, I had a couple of series of my own, sitcoms. I had one called “A Whole New Ballgame” that was canceled by ABC on Wednesday morning in 1995. That night, I was out to dinner, crying in my beer, and Larry David’s office called and said: We have a guest star role on “Seinfeld” if John is interested. I originally said no. But my manager never made the call [to David’s office], and called me the next morning: “Get up. They’re waiting for you.” Had I not done that, you and I probably wouldn’t be talking right now. I would’ve disappeared into a cultural vacuum.
Q: Can you believe the longevity?
A: It keeps reinventing itself. On Netflix, it’s got a whole new generation of kids watching. My son’s 15, and his friends, that’s all they watch now is “Seinfeld,” and he never watched it before.
Q: What’s his favorite Peterman episode?
A: He loves the wedding cake episode. Recites in perfect Peterman cadence “Do you have any idea what happens to a butter-based frosting after six decades in a poorly ventilated English basement? I think what you’re about to go through will be punishment enough.”
Q: When they first gave you the character, you knew right away who he was?
A: Oh yeah. I saw this was a raving lunatic. A legend in his own mind. The corporate Mr. Magoo. I loved the sheer lunacy of the character.
Q: What’s your favorite Peterman monolog?
A: My favorite was cut from “The Friars Club” episode, when I mistakenly thought Elaine and Rob Schneider’s character, Bob, were having an office romance. I walk into her office late one afternoon, and this was what they cut:
‘Elaine, don’t worry. I, too, am no stranger to love on the clock. As young man my father apprenticed me to a honey factory in Belize. The chief beekeeper was a horrible hag of a woman with gnarled teeth and a giant wart that she called a nose. Ooooh! She was not attractive even by backwoods standards. But love is truly blind, Elaine, and as the days went on, working closer and closer together, that sweet smell of honey the air, I knew I had to have that horrible creature. And I did. So you and Bob have a good time tonight.’
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.