Stage & Dance

'Chicago' star John O'Hurley: Lexington is 'one of the classiest little towns in America'

John O'Hurley said he had to find compassion in the role of Billy Flynn in Chicago. Otherwise, "he's just a one-dimensional piece of slime."
John O'Hurley said he had to find compassion in the role of Billy Flynn in Chicago. Otherwise, "he's just a one-dimensional piece of slime." Courtesy of the Lexington Center

John O'Hurley has played Chicago's sleazy lawyer, Billy Flynn, three times on Broadway and numerous times on national tours, earning him the privilege of playing the role where he likes.

This year, he wanted to play it in Lexington, and if you wonder why, look no further than one of his best-known roles: as Lexington clothier J. Peterman on Seinfeld.

"Normally, it wouldn't have been a stop I would have made, because it's a split week," O'Hurley said during a phone call from his home in Beverly Hills. "But I wanted to come to Lexington because of my attachment to the Peterman Co., and also because I just love the city. I think it's one of the classiest little towns in America.

"They get you with the picket fence at the airport. You're just totally disarmed at that point. It sets you up for what's to come: There's a sense of elegance and authenticity there, and that's been underscored by John Peterman's love of the place."

The men did not know each other when O'Hurley was cast to play a caricature of Peterman in 1995. The catalog company owner became a character on the show when Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), one of the show's central quartet of friends, went to work as a copywriter for the fictional Peterman and rode the waves of his adventurous, self-aggrandizing personality.

The real Peterman did not know it was coming.

"All of a sudden, one morning, he shows up as a parody on the No. 1 show on television," O'Hurley says. "It was that shocking.

"Seinfeld always found it was easier to apologize later than get permission up front."

O'Hurley says Peterman did initially call his lawyers about the satire, but he was told he would probably be better off riding the wave of notoriety than suing.

The real Peterman told the Herald-Leader in 1995, "I think it's interesting that a lot of people out there are probably saying, 'Who the hell is J. Peterman?' and I think that's wonderful." Peterman also said he was pleased that the producers had selected a handsome actor to play him: ""I'm glad it wasn't Pee Wee Herman."

O'Hurley's character was always based more on the florid text in Peterman's catalogs, which sold high-end items with elaborate descriptions, than on the no-nonsense businessman. The show decided to incorporate Peterman because star Jerry Seinfeld and creator Larry David were customers of the company and were fascinated by the catalog's writing, which might describe a shirt like this: "Men will look broad-shouldered, brave and secretly kind."

Despite the shock of their initial link in pop culture, O'Hurley and Peterman became friends.

"All through the run on Seinfeld, we became good friends and would exchange clothing and wine," Peterman said.

After Seinfeld ended, The J. Peterman Co. went through bankruptcy. O'Hurley ultimately became an investor and board member when Peterman was able to reacquire the company's intellectual property.

To this day, O'Hurley says, he and Peterman can be walking in New York and people will come up to them and call him Peterman.

"It's a surreal kind of identity theft in a way," O'Hurley said. "He ran this successful clothing company, and now he lost his identity to an actor who parodied him on the No. 1 show on TV."

That helped boost O'Hurley's career, making it particularly notable when he was engaged to play Chicago's Billy Flynn on Broadway in 2006, 2010 and 2011. He now annually hops on the national tour for a few stops, usually going to larger cities, where the musical about Prohibition-era crime and corruption runs for a week. But he made the exception for Lexington, so we will see his own take on Billy, the lawyer who manipulates everyone around him to get his way and his clients' way, if their interests are mutual.

"I have two shows that are sort of arrows in my quiver," O'Hurley says. "One is this, and the other is King Arthur in Spamalot. I love being able to take these shows around the country. They're phenomenal roles and a joy to play."

He describes Flynn as "the hood ornament of elegance."

"I think he's an enormously complex character, and if he's not played that way, I think you miss the point of the show. He's supposed to be dashing and elegant, but at the same time, you have to find moments of compassion and almost a paternal nature in the character, or the character doesn't work — he's just a one-dimensional piece of slime."

People who have paid attention know that O'Hurley is not a one-dimensional sitcom actor. Since Seinfeld, he has made his mark as a dancer, taking two turns on Dancing With the Stars and as a host; has spent several years on Family Feud; and has emceed NBC's annual Thanksgiving broadcast of The National Dog Show.

O'Hurley said the dog show was inspired by an NBC producer who watched Christopher Guest's film satire Best in Show and concluded that a dog show would be the perfect thing to place between the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade broadcast and football.

That precipitated O'Hurley's new book, The Perfect Dog, a Dr. Seuss-style story O'Hurley wrote for his 6-year-old son, based on a video O'Hurley made for last year's National Dog Show.

O'Hurley, who also is a pianist and a classically trained vocalist, says he can find a common thread running through his diverse career.

"I appreciate a sense of elegance," O'Hurley, 59, said. "I think I'm old-school Hollywood in that regard."

And remember, elegance was one of the things O'Hurley found in Lexington.



What: National touring production of the iconic musical with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, a book by Ebb and Bob Fosse presented by Broadway Live at the Opera House.

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 8; 2 and 8 p.m. Nov. 9; 1 and 6 p.m. Nov. 10

Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.

Tickets: $37.15-$112.15. Available at (859) 233-3535, and Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or


On Broadway, the long-running revival of Chicago has raised stunt casting — putting big-name celebrities into leading roles to help attract larger audiences — to a new level.

Some of the choices have been obvious, including Seinfeld actor John O'Hurley as Billy Flynn, a role he will reprise in Lexington this weekend.

Others are less so, notably Flatwoods native Billy Ray Cyrus, aka Miley's dad, in the same role last year. Or how about iconic model Christie Brinkley as Roxie Hart?

Here's a look at some of the celebrities who have crossed the stage in Chicago on Broadway, London's West End, national tours and film.

Billy Flynn: Jerry Orbach (originated the role on Broadway in 1975), Backstreet Boy and Estill County native Kevin Richardson, Richard Gere (in the film), Usher, Jerry Springer, Patrick Swayze, Alan Thicke, David Hasselhoff, Taye Diggs, Louis Gossett Jr., Michael C. Hall, George Hamilton, Robert Urich, Wayne Brady, Harry Hamlin, Gregory Harrison, Joey Lawrence, Huey Lewis, John Schneider, Tom Wopat.

Roxie Hart: Gwen Verdon (originated the role on Broadway in 1975), Renee Zellweger (in the film), Brooke Shields, Ashlee Simpson, Liza Minelli (a replacement in the 1975 production), Sandy Duncan, Marilu Henner, former Trading Spaces host Paige Davis, former American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi, Robin Givens, Melanie Griffith, former Dancing With the Stars host Samantha Harris, Bebe Neuwirth, Lisa Rinna, Michelle T. Williams, Rita Wilson.

Velma Kelly: Chita Rivera (originated role on Broadway in 1975), Catherine Zeta Jones (in film), Bebe Neuwirth (originated role in 1996 Broadway revival), Jasmine Guy.

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