Played with flair and elegance by John O’Hurley, the real life J. Peterman and O’Hurley through the years became good friends – and eventually business partners.
How the real J. Peterman found out he was a character on ‘Seinfeld’
According to Jennifer Armstrong’s Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything, the real J. Peterman had no idea “he” was on Seinfeld. He found out his persona was a character on the comedy from his staff.
After arriving to his Kentucky office from a late flight, Peterman “stumbled into the office from which he operated his clothing catalog company. All anyone would say to him was, ‘You were on Seinfeld.’ It felt like the strangest of dreams. He kept replying, ‘I was on an airplane. I wasn’t on Seinfeld.‘”
One of his employees had recorded (on videocassette, naturally) an episode featuring the Peterman character. In absolutely no way did the television character resemble his real-life counterpart – not in appearance or in personality.
“‘It’s a good thing he’s nothing like me, because then he wouldn’t be on Seinfeld,'” Armstrong quoted Peterman as saying.
John O’Hurley had no interest in playing J. Peterman at first
When he was approached in 1995 about playing J. Peterman on Seinfeld, John O’Hurley wanted no part of it. He had been fronting his own situation comedy, A Whole New Ballgame, on ABC, which had been canceled after one season.
“I’d just had my own show canceled,” RetailDive reported O’Hurley as saying in a 2018 interview. Although he’d squelched the idea telling his manager, “I don’t want to guest star in someone else’s No. 1 show or not,” his manager talked him into giving it a go.
O’Hurley’s take on the fictional Peterman is almost as funny as his over-the-top renditions of the man.
“They handed me the J. Peterman catalog, and I had never seen anything like it,” O’Hurley said. “It was pastel drawings with something that looked like a Hemingway story. They said, ‘We want him to sound the way the catalog is written.'”
Describing Seinfeld‘s Peterman as a combination of “1940s radio drama and a bad Charles Kuralt,” O’Hurley said he portrayed the character to the hilt as “a complete lunatic. Truly, he was a Mr. Magoo, crazy lunatic and poet-warrior character,” he said. “He was an extension of the way the catalog was written.”
How John O’Hurley became part owner of the J. Peterman catalog
In a 2016 conversation with Rolling Stone, O’Hurley explained that he and J. Peterman had gotten to know one another over the years and become friends. To his surprise, the real J. Peterman was nothing like the Seinfeld character at all.
“John Peterman walks the talk,” O’Hurley said. “He’s the guy who, instead of taking a flight to South America, would hop on a freighter and rent a room for a night. He’d much rather play poker with the guys running the freighter for four or five hours at night and have a glass of rum with them than sit around on a cruise liner or an airplane.”
After Seinfeld ended, the J. Peterman catalog was sold by its owner after going through financial losses. Almost two years later, Peterman once again gained ownership of the business but this time asked O’Hurley if he would consider joining the business. O’Hurley agreed.
“It’s been a wonderful learning curve for me to learn another business outside of entertainment,” said O’Hurley, who’s been part owner and on its board of directors since 1999. “And there’s something so interesting and so theatrical about it. There’s something about the J. Peterman idea of things, the idea of searching for life as you wish it could be. It makes it fun.”