John O'Hurley plays Billy Flynn in the national tour of "Chicago," which hits St. Paul on Tuesday.
For actor John O'Hurley, touring with "Chicago" is a "working vacation." Yes, he's on stage eight shows a week as slick lawyer Billy Flynn, but it is familiar work that he loves.
O'Hurley is still best known for his role as J. Peterman on "Seinfeld." He has established his own brand as a big winner on "Dancing With the Stars" and as a host on "Family Feud." On Broadway, he played the dopey King Arthur in "Monty Python's Spamalot."
"Chicago" stamps O'Hurley with a new identity, that of Flynn -- who finagles an acquittal for the notorious Roxie Hart. He does the role on Broadway about eight weeks a year, then takes it on tour for another six to eight weeks. "I'm sure I've done it more than any single human being," he said. "Chicago," which has been running continuously on Broadway since 1996, boasts the legendary creative names of Bob Fosse, John Kander and Fred Ebb and a vaudevillian style that replicates the 1920s.
O'Hurley took a few minutes to chat from his home in Beverly Hills last week.
Q I read a quote from you that Billy is slick, self-involved, makes no apologies for himself, loves what he is, loves what he does. Sounds like Peterman.
A A little bit, but Peterman was a legend in his own mind. There is something very self-knowing about Billy, and I think that's the difference. Peterman was more a Mr. Magoo; he wasn't aware of what he was doing. I equate the other role I do, King Arthur, with Peterman. The two were essentially the same person, separated by 1,000 years.
Q Your relationship with Peterman has now gone from fiction to fact, right?
A The year after "Seinfeld" ended, the company went through a period of reorganization and the real J. Peterman called me and said, "Would you like to put the company back together under our parallel strengths?" I said yeah, so I have owned it with him since 1999.
Q And now you are more Peterman than he is?
A Our board meetings are in Manhattan and we'll be walking along Madison Avenue together going for lunch and every other person shouts out, "Hey, Peterman!" and they're not talking to him. Marshall McLuhan said the message would become the medium and I'm the walking example of it. I played a character on TV and now I am that character.
Q But you've been able to move on by playing yourself?
A "Dancing With the Stars" gave me my own personality back. Prior to that, I was always Peterman. The perspiration and athletic competition in "Dancing With the Stars" strips away the veneer and you see more of the real person underneath.
Q And "Family Feud"?
A For the most part, a game show is -- I always refer to it as a cocktail party. You are as much yourself on a game show as you are at a cocktail party.
Q How much do you like to work during a year?
A With the exception of taking six weeks off to spend in our summer home in Vermont, I am trying to work every other second.
Q So you keep up with your New England roots?
A I was born in Maine and my family is still up in New England. And there is something in New England, especially in the summer, that is extremely authentic for me. Minneapolis is the same way. That's one of the reasons I'm attracted to it.
Q How often do you get here?
A About once a year. I did a lot of fundraising with celebrity golf. You know Matt Blair? I'm going to play with Matt next Monday.
Q How long do you want to keep playing Billy Flynn?
A I just did the 15-year anniversary on Broadway last November. I see no reason for the show to end. It still attracts a great crowd and renews its audience every two years. Every child that desires to put dance shoes on eventually will sit in a seat on Broadway and watch "Chicago." It's on my list of the five great musicals ever done. It relies on imagination and even though it's a story from the 1920s, it has such contemporary meanings. It never really ages.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299