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John O'Hurley Discusses His New CD, 'Family Feud,' & His Role As Peterman On 'Seinfeld'

February 17th, 2009 11:05am EST
John O HurleyI lied to John O'Hurley. I told John O'Hurley -- who is best known for his role as J. Peterman on Seinfeld -- on my own merit, that I was going to avoid any questions about Seinfeld. I swear, I gave it a gallant effort. I really thought I was going to make it through. Do you realize how hard of a subject this is to avoid when an actor is so known for a role; especially when that character is on a show I still love? Sadly, I succumbed to temptation. I accept your scorn.

Thankfully, John was more than willing to discuss the iconic show along with his new classical CD, Family Feud, why he hates the upcoming new prime time Jay Leno show and what it's like to completely steal someones (the real J. Peterman) identity.

Mike: First of all, I'm going to make a promise to you: I have no direct questions about Seinfeld. [Note from Mike: Ha! Again, this proved to be, well, a lie.]

John: Oh my goodness...

Mike: I know.

John: (Laughs) I don't mind questions about that.

Mike: Well, I've been listening to your new CD, Secrets from the Lake, and I didn't really have any idea of what to expect. When someone is known for one thing then releases something "different," it's hard not to wonder ... I had visions of everything from those William Shatner albums ...

John: (Laughing)

Mike: ... to that Chris Gaines fellow that Garth Brooks made up ...

John: (Laughs) I lived up to the lack of expectation.

Mike: No, not at all. I really enjoyed it. The word "pleasing" comes to mind.

John: Well, I appreciate it. Composing is a very private thing that I do; it's always been there. I've been composing in my head, I think, since I was four years old when I would wander the pond around the house, there, and catch turtles and frogs. I always had songs in my head. And it was back in a time -- in the late 50's -- when every movie had a big film theme. Big orchestral, you know, no words just these great big themes like Exodus and Moon River.

I grew up with those heavily melodic orchestral themes in my head, so that's probably what's shaped a lot of what's passed through my head since then. I love hearing great melodies, I'm melody driven ... I like melodies that have a beginning, a middle and an end.

John O'HurleyMike: I live in Manhattan but for awhile today [your CD] was on in the background -- and there is a terrible windstorm going on outside today -- but I kind of felt like I was in a relaxing house in New England with the music on in the background. I saw later you are from Maine ... was Maine part of the inspiration?

John: I would say water. I'm New England born and raised; I mean I've lived all over New England ... I own a place now which has it's own lake, believe it or not, in Vermont. I composed a lot of this album in Vermont; I'm over the lake there so a great deal of it is attributed to that.

The analogy of the lake really is a stage of that in my life. I'm looking for quiet, more embraceable things rather than the rush of streams and the thunder of the ocean.

Mike: This is actually your second collaboration?

John: The first one I did was a double CD with my partner Marston Smith who is one of the top cellists in the world. And together we create a sound that nobody else is doing; it's kind of a fusion of what he has -- which is electronic cello with, also, one string of the violin attached to it ... so it kind of creates an interesting fusion of piano and strings.

Mike: How long does it take from the point you start writing to [the finished product]?

John: Because I independently produce and independently distribute my own stuff ... there is a big learning curve for me. The first [album] that we did, Piece of Our Minds took about 18 months ... I was quite the neophyte.

The second one actually began recording in September and it was ready to press just before Christmas so I learned a lot in a short amount of time.

Mike: Obviously, you are the host of Family Feud now. When I was growing up we had Wink Martindale, Bob Eubanks, Gene Rayburn; there is no such thing as just a game show host any longer. It seems that you have to become a successful actor first -- like yourself, Howie Mandel, Drew Carey -- I just want to get your opinion on that.

John: Hmmm. That's interesting.

Mike: What advice would you give a young child out there saying: "Hey, I just want to become a game show host"? Do they have to become an actor first?

John: You know I think, well, because there are ... it's an interesting thing. People are kind of looking, I think, for names to attach to projects so they are looking for comedic actors to take over the role of hosting shows. Because none of it is scripted and people, they want to have some sort of well cultivated sense of wit and comfortable with processing information quickly. So, I think they rely on that kind of comedic host to be able to to that. Most of us come to that genre with some acting credits behind us.

So, it's more circumstantial. But, also, with a name because networks just won't touch anything now unless they know somebody who's doing it. They're not in the process of incubating things anymore.

Mike: I've noticed that. You know, I didn't really think about it until I was thinking of questions for you, but Bob Barker was really kind of the last one.

John: Exactly right. Yeah. That's interesting that you say that, it really is true. Of course you look back at [Barker] and he probably ... I think Bob started off in either news or something. I don't he just started off, really, as a game show host. I think he actually started off in radio, which really is the incubation for many...

Mike: Well, kind of like Regis [Philbin], now.

John: Exactly. He was Joey Bishop's sidekick.

Mike: You were on the first season of Dancing With The Stars. When you agreed to do that show did you ever envision it would be as successful as it was?

John: No. It was just something I wanted to do. I was the first one they approached and the first one that agreed to do it. So they showed me the tapes of what it was in England and it was very successful over there.

And I said, you know, this is elegant television and it's something I would be proud to be part of because approaching 50-years-old I don't know how to ballroom dance and darn it... I should. It's something I wouldn't be ashamed to do or have my family watch. And also it's just for the fun of the competition. A lot of people said no to it because "I don't want to be a ballroom dancer on TV" and stuff like that. I said, no, not me, it's something I said I should know how to do.

And because Evander Holyfield was the second one who signed on. I really wanted to give America what they've been looking for, for more than 20 years, which was the Evendar Holyfield - John O'Hurley match up, finally, on the level playing field of ballroom dancing. America needed that, had been screaming for it and we finally got it settled; I took him out in 3 rounds.

Mike: Not only that: you kind of won, right?

John: There was no clear winner the first year was there (laughs)? They had the big public uproar over the voting system. So they had to redo the final one in a dance off and I finally won that. Yeah, just leave it to me to turn something as elegant as ballroom dancing into the WWF. Not since the hanging chads of Palm Beach County has the country been so divided.

Mike: Well, congratulation on that.

John: (Laughs)

Mike: I was looking down your IMDB page and before Seinfeld, one thing I noticed, you played a lot of doctors. I mean a lot...

John: And truth be known: I never kept one patient alive. In the history of all of the doctors that I've played, never one patient stayed alive. And I don't know they've ever tabulated that up, but, if you came to me you're going home in a body bag. So call your agent (laughs).

Mike: You know what show I actually liked a lot even though it was only one season? I actually liked Cursed -- which later became The Weber Show.

John: That was a fun show. Well, Steven (Weber) is such a wonderful talent; he's just a very accessible comedian. And we had such a fun time on that show together because the boss -- that I played -- was really kind of an extension of J. Peterman [from Seinfeld], just that same kind of lunatic.

Mike: I always wondered what happened. It was a great cast, it was a fun idea that [Steve Weber's character] was cursed [by his ex-girlfriend]. The the whole angle was dropped, the title was changed ... was that an example of too many cooks in the kitchen?

John: Oh yeah, yeah. I saw a lot of that at that period of time following Seinfeld. There's a lot of push to "hey, let's change the concept and turn around and do another show. Keep the cast and rename it something."

They did it with another show I did, too, right before Seinfeld. I did a show called A Whole New Ballgame which was a brand new concept of a show but using the same cast. In other words: They started off the year as one show, they changed the entire concept of the show and they kept the cast.

Mike: I never understand that because a lot of the most successful shows -- and Seinfeld is a good example -- aren't extremely successful at first. It takes time to build an audience; they have to be, as you said, given time to incubate properly.

John: They just don't anymore and they can't. It's because television is really in its death throes, in a way, because they just are looking for anything to put up there right now. Especially when you look at Jay Leno now, who's going to be taking over an entire hour out of the prime time schedule ... there's five [hour] or ten half-hour shows that will never see the light of day and that's a whole slew of writers that will never get a chance to generate ... it's stories that will never be told because we're replacing it with a talk show.

Mike: I was actually kind of disappointed by that.

John: It's an admission by the networks that we don't have a clue what we're doing anymore.

Mike: Yeah and it's nothing against Jay Leno...

John: Not at all...

Mike: If he had went to ABC and was doing another late night show that would be fine. I agree with what you said: We get 15 hours per week of prime time programming, per network, and they just took 5 of those hours away...

John: And replacing it with what is basically kind of mindless promotion. At one point you're going to hit critical mass on promotion because you're not doing anything you can promote!

Mike: It's kind of a goofy situation because [Leno and Conan O'Brien] will be competing with each other.

John: Conan has to be just absolutely livid. It's like, literally, I finally get the job I want and you find a way to water it down for me.

Mike: I found it interesting: After Seinfeld you became an actual owner of J. Peterman?

John: I bought the company a year after that, yeah.

Mike: Are you still involved?

John: Absolutely. In fact this spring, believe it or not, in the Peterman catalogue after much haggling for years and years between Peterman and I: They are finally introducing their first golf shirt which is -- believe it or not and this is where he surprises me every now and then -- it's being called the O'Hurley shirt.

So really, I don't need an Oscar or an Emmy; I've pretty much gotten what every man wants ... their own golf shirt named after them.

Mike: I don't have my own golf shirt named after me.

John: Very few do ... few people do.

Mike: Had you met the real J. Peterman before you did the role?

John: No. And Seinfeld did it without permission. I'll tell you how strange this is, and it gets worse. This man literally walked into the office on a Friday morning and said [to the real J. Peterman] "You were on Seinfeld last night."

[Peterman] goes, "No, I was on a plane. What are you talking about?" They had taken the character and the essence of the character and the company without permission and used it. And then it got worse because then he OK'd the use of it because it was endless publicity for the company. He went from $15 million to $125 million in sales between 94 and 98; so it was a pretty big jump for him.

But after that the company went quickly bankrupt due to all sorts of glitches that happened then in two weeks, just the bottom fell out of the company. So I bought the company back with him a year later so we own it together. So now he and I go to the board meetings together and we're walking down Madison Avenue together just to go to lunch -- this is any board meeting. If not every person, then every other person in Manhattan will stop us and say, "Peterman!" And they're not talking to him.

Think about what that means: Someone has stolen your life. You want to talk about identity theft? This is it in the worst degree. And not only that: You agreed to it. For the rest of our lives, together, he will never be known as J. Peterman. I am him. It's a bizarre type of thing to tell you the power of television.

Mike: I have to say: I do really enjoy you as the host of Family Feud. When I was a little kid I loved that show and I loved Richard Dawson...

John: It's been fun, for me it's like hosting a cocktail party. It's fun, it's energetic and it's really kind of honed me a little bit because I've learned a lot from hosting the show about the idea of don't try to plan comedy. It's just: Go out there and just be relaxed and know that if you leap the net will appear. Just take the time to relax and genuinely listen and these people will say the silliest things you've ever heard.

Mike: And I liked the late Ray Combs when he did it, too; but you found a way to do it, garner interest in the show and you found a way to do it without having to kiss people.

John: Without with all the inherent hygiene problems (laughs). Our ratings are wonderful, we're up 40 percent since I took over ... it has a new life, a new audience and the demographics are where they want them to be now.

Mike: Last question: I remember seeing a question on the show, "Name something you do right before you kiss someone." Could you imagine Richard Dawson with that question?

John: (Laughing) That would be a loaded ... yeah ... that would be a 45 minute episode. (Laughs) It would be dipping into Oprah's time to finish that show up!


John O'Hurley's new CD, Secrets From The Lake, is currently available.

Mike Ryan
"Mike's Pulse" is a column written by transplanted Midwesterner and current New Yorker Mike Ryan. For any compliments or complaints -- preferably the former -- you may contact Mike directly at miker@starpulse.com