John O’Hurley has played Billy Flynn in three different Broadway runs, and is now headlining the current national tour.
John O'Hurley is known by some as the award-winning actor who not only immortalized real-life clothing entrepreneur J Peterman on Seinfeld -- he bought his company in 2001. O'Hurley calls it "one of the greatest acts of identity theft of all time."
Others know him as a best-selling author. Or as the host of the annual National Dog Show. Or as the former host of The Family Feud. Or as a champion contestant on Dancing with the Stars. John O’Hurley also has played win-at-any-cost lawyer Billy Flynn three different times in Broadway runs of Chicago, and he is now headlining the current national touring production that stops in Denver from March 18-23.
O'Hurley took time this week to talk with MyDenverCenter.Org about his signature roles, his love for dogs, his love for Breaking Bad-boy Bryan Cranston, why Chicago remains topical 39 years after it debuted on Broadway, and his unabashed endorsement of his co-star, Bianca Marroquin. You may not have heard of the Mexican TV star, but O'Hurley, who has logged more than 1,000 performances as Billy Flynn, calls her simply, "the best Roxie Hart I have ever seen."
John Moore: Let's start with your writing career. What got you started down that path?
John O'Hurley: I live by my imagination, and whatever my imagination tells me to do, I do. That's why I write books and I compose albums and a lot of other things outside of theatre. My writing started when I was hosting The National Dog Show, which I have been doing for 13 years now on Thanksgiving Day. One year, I wrote a piece for the show Andy Rooney-style. It was called Five Great Lessons My Dogs Have Taught Me, and the darned thing turned out to be way too long, so we couldn't use it. But I expanded it to 15 things on the way home on the plane, and it occurred to me that it might make a good book. I had never written a book before. I didn't even know how to. But my agent sold it inside of a day, and the book was on The New York Times best-seller list. All of a sudden, I was a published author. My third book is a children's book that just came out this year.
Moore: Is that The Perfect Dog?
O'Hurley: Yeah, it's a Dr. Seuss-style poem that I wrote to my son in response to his question, "Is every dog perfect?"
Moore: What was your answer?
O'Hurley: Well, the final statement is, "The dog is that is perfect is the one next to you." And it was his little stuffed animal named "Puppy."
Moore: Nice. And is it true that everyone who listens to their imaginations and writes a book becomes an instant New York Times best-seller?
O'Hurley: Not sure if that's the way it works. I never deal in results. I just deal in the necessities of doing what you imagine.
Moore: There was a story in The Huffington Post just today about the habits of highly creative people, and you already have described several of them.
O'Hurley: I do a lot of motivational speaking. Actually, I have this speech that is titled, The Peterman Guide to the Extraordinary Life. You'd be surprised. I speak to hedge funds on Wall Street, and I speak to university kids - a very diverse group of people. But it always resonates true that there are three elements to an extraordinary life, and one of them is imagination. If you live by your imagination, it takes you where you need to go.
Moore: Well, now I have to ask you about your dogs. How many do you have?
O'Hurley: I have two dogs right now, but those are not the ones I wrote about. Sadly, they have passed on. I now have a Havenese named Lucy, and a little Cavalier King Charles (Spaniel) named Sadie. They're great dogs.
Moore: So is it weird for me to admit that I first became a fan of yours while you were on Loving with Bryan Cranston?
O'Hurley: Oh, wow. Today is Bryan Cranston's birthday, too. I just got off the phone with him. ... Yeah.
Moore: As in, "Yeah, John, that is a little weird ..."?
O'Hurley: No (laughing). That was one of my favorite shows ever. Mostly because Bryan and I got to send up every scene as a comedy. Daytime took itself very seriously, so it was easy to parody. Bryan and I probably learned more about comedy on Loving than on any show either of us has ever done.
Moore: Are you saying those scenes weren't serious?
O'Hurley: Well ... we had to do them seriously. Just not during dress rehearsal.
Moore: So what did you think when your buddy ended up breaking out in Breaking Bad?
O'Hurley: I remember when he showed me the script. He told me, "I am doing this pilot about a crystal-meth high-school teacher." I just laughed and said, "Well, well ... How about that?" That was just before cable really hit its niche audience. I think Breaking Bad was one of those series where people discovered it was OK to wander away from the networks - and even away from Showtime and HBO - and venture into the hinterlands of cable television. And they found great stuff going on. The network took a big chance doing Breaking Bad, and it rewarded them handsomely. And Bryan as well. It was a great role for him, and it was a great contrast to the role he had done on Malcolm in the Middle. A rather severe contrast. Bryan has always had that weight in him, and I think he really developed that weight doing that show.
Moore: I used to write about theatre for The Denver Post, and so I have been writing about Chicago, from local productions to Broadway to the film, since 2002. It's uncanny to me how every time I take a look at it, and several years have gone by, there is yet another celebrity trial going on that makes Chicago seem as current as this morning's headlines.
O'Hurley: It's amazing that we hold the notion of celebrity to a different moral standard than we do if you just come up through the normal ranks of life.
Moore: And it doesn't ever seem to change. There always will be razzle-dazzle lawyers and celebrity obsession and a star-driven media. But in the 1990s, it looked like Chicago surely was written in response to the O.J. Simpson trial. Then there were Robert Blake and Martha Stewart and Michael Jackson's doctor. Now it's Oscar Pistorius. And most people would never know that the source story was written in the 1920s. Or that the Broadway musical debuted in 1975.
O'Hurley: It never ends, and it gets more lunatic now when you figure that a lot of our celebrities now are not talent-driven celebrities. They are famous only for being celebrities. We are in the "Kardashian era" of notoriety. There are people who are willing to become the story rather than learn the infinitely more difficult task of trying to become one through art. And they are willing to take the dysfunction of their life and make that the core of an entertainment piece, rather than doing what Bryan or I do, which is to take these wonderful stories that have deeper and more beneficial meanings - and tell them. As opposed to the Lindsay Lohans of the world.
Moore: The central tenet of Chicago is its cynical assertion that truth in America is malleable, and often even incidental. But when I see you perform as Billy Flynn when you come to Denver next week, I think what will be different for me is that Billy Flynn in 2014 might not be a lawyer but rather a politician -- if there were any money in it.
O'Hurley: (Laughing) ... Listen, if Billy is willing to shake down Amos, he's willing to shake down anybody.
Moore: Yes, but this does seem to be a filibustering time in American politics, when you can create your own truth and shape it for your constituents, and they will tend to believe it. In part, I think, because of the continuing decline of the mainstream media. Congress would be a playground for Billy Flynn. He'd get away with anything. Everything.
O'Hurley: And that starts from the top, really. We have been razzle-dazzled by ... (stops himself) ... time and time again over the last ... well, let's just say since time immemorial. But it's getting much worse now.
Moore: We could say all the way back to Andrew Jackson.
O'Hurley: Yeah, but I think it is much worse now because of the plethora of media. You can't escape scrutiny. Using Bryan (Cranston) as an example: The play he is doing now on Broadway (All the Way, in which he is playing LBJ), somebody as notorious as Johnson or as scandalous as JFK could exist then, because the media just wasn't there.
Moore: When it came to personal lives, the media were conspirators in a way. It wasn't that they didn't know what was going on in private, but honestly, journalism ethics at the time held that it wasn't anyone's business. That has obviously completely changed.
O'Hurley: But it's also the volume of media now. It's self-perpetuating, too. We have more media than we need, and it is all self-justifying, if you know what I mean.
Moore: Well, depending on your definition, "the media" may be proliferating as a whole, but the credible and ethical traditional media is dying away.
O'Hurley: But we don't need 200 news channels, for example.
Moore: True, but I have always defined media as really anyone with distribution. These days, that means anyone with a Twitter account is part of "the media," because you can say whatever you want, and it will be distributed. Therefore, you are by definition part of the media. But unlike trained journalists, you have no accountability. You can say whatever you want, and it surely will be taken as truth by someone.
O'Hurley: Yes. Yes.
Moore: OK, so this is my favorite topic, but I want to bring it back to you. I know that you have played Billy Flynn in more than 1,000 performances. So as you go out on the road, the obvious question is, how do you keep it fresh?
O'Hurley: I say one prayer as I go onstage every night. I really do. And that prayer is, very simply, "God, let me be surprised." What I mean by that is, I want to stay relaxed and open enough so that I know what I am going to say ... I just don't know why I am going to say it. That allows me to react differently every night. It makes me listen to what is being said to me, and what is going on around me. And more often than not, something new does happen every single night onstage to me -- and I don't mean to be trite about that. Genuinely, something brand new occurs to me every show. So to say I have performed the role a thousand times ... well, yes, and the role is a thousand times more interesting to me now than it was when I started back in 2006. It is infinitely more complicated and complex to me now than it was then. You compare that to Richard Gere (who starred in the 2002 film version of Chicago). He probably had six or eight weeks with Billy Flynn, and then moved on to something else. I have had eight years with him.
Bianca Marroquin as Roxie Hart, with Ryan Worsing and Michael Cusumano, in the national touring production of "Chicago." Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
Moore: I imagine the cavalcade of female stars you have performed with over the years has had a lot to do with keeping it fresh for you as well.
O'Hurley: Not fresh. I can keep it fresh without any problem. I mean, I can play against a piece of cardboard, and I will find something interesting about it. I would say that it does help in terms of trying to drive the rest of the show. You're lucky that Bianca (Marroquin) is coming out for the Colorado run. I would say -- and I don't think I am off the mark when I say this -- that I think she is the best Roxie I have ever seen.
Moore: What makes her so?
O'Hurley: I think she is one of the most engaging triple-threat performers I have seen come across the Broadway stage in a while. She's got something really extraordinary. She is Chita Rivera born again. She brings this wonderful, multicultural feel to her to this character. Her physical comedy is fabulous. And she is fearless in the role. Absolutely fearless. It's a real gift to have her.
Moore: You mentioned Richard Gere, and he is part of an astonishing and long list of actors who have played Billy Flynn, including everyone from Joel Gray to Tom Wopat to Usher. Do you think you have discovered one aspect of the character, one truth, one trait that you think is truly, uniquely yours?
O'Hurley: There are probably a hundred. I just think I've spent more time with him, and I also think it's in my nature that I find things more deeply spiritual about the characters I play than most people are willing to explore.
O'Hurley: I'll give you an example: I think Billy Flynn has an enormous paternal quality to him. And most people who play Billy play him very mono-chromatically. They put the smile on and he doesn't change from one moment to the end. That's ultimately uninteresting to me, and it's ultimately uninteresting to the audience. I think if an actor appears onstage with everything they already need to survive, then they are not interesting. They are really just a piece of cardboard that is moving back and forth across the stage, and you can replace them with a flashing light and a tape recorder. But I think what makes Billy interesting is that he has an extraordinary paternal quality to him. I mean, these girls are his girls, and he manages them all. It's like his little harem of girls who are coming up on the court docket, and he will defend each of them with his life. I think that comes out shortly after Roxie has fired and then re-hired him. They've just had their latest shouting match, and she says to him, "Billy, I'm scared." And he turns to her and says, "You've got nothing to worry about. It's all a circus, kid." And when he says, "kid," he is choosing his words very carefully.
(Editor's note: John O'Hurley played a fictionalized version of catalog-company entrepreneur John Peterman on "Seinfeld from 1995-98. In 2001, O'Hurley became a part-owner of The J Peterman Company.)
Moore: As I wrap this up, you mentioned your Seinfeld alter ego earlier, and I have to ask: Where does J Peterman live in your pesona?
O'Hurley: Listen, I wake up every morning and I embrace him. I love the lunacy. To me, he was a corporate Mr. Magoo. It was all about the writing and the literature. The fact that he was basically speaking literature made him so much more interesting than any other character I have ever played. I love him and I miss him. I really do. But I love very literal and very verbose characters who are urbane like that. Where language is extremely important.
Moore: Are you still part-owner of the Peterman company?
O'Hurley: Oh, sure.
Moore: You once called this one of the greatest acts of identity theft of all time.
O'Hurley: Yes. When Marshall McLuhan once said, "The message and the medium will eventually become indistinguishable," I am the living example of that.
Moore: There seem to be strains of Chicago running underneath everything you just said.
O'Hurley: Yes, indeed. (Laughing.)
Moore: If this is not too personal, do you mind if I ask why you work so hard on behalf of The Epilepsy Foundation?
O'Hurley: Oh, sure. I lost my sister to epilepsy back when I was 16 years old. And so it is out my reverence for her. Epilepsy just happens to be one of those things that still lives in the Dark Ages. Neurological disorders of any sort seem to be thought of as "other people's thing," sadly. It's just a matter of educating people and learning how to manage these disorders so that those who have epilepsy can have normal, working lives.
Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, right) worked as a copy writer for J Peterman, played by John O'Hurley, on "Seinfeld."
Chicago in Denver: Ticket information
- March 18-23
- The Buell Theatre
- 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
- Call 303-893-4100 or go to the Denver Center's web site
John O'Hurley: Denver book reading
- John O’Hurley will read from and sign his picture book The Perfect Dog ($9.99, Grossett & Dunlap)
- 10 a.m. Saturday, March 22
- Bonfils Tattered Cover, 2526 E. Colfax Ave., Denver
- More information: Click here