John O’Hurley has been working on stage professionally since he graduated from Providence College in 1976 with a BA in Theatre. He has always returned to that first love, even as he became famous on TV for playing Elaine’s boss, J. Peterman, in Seinfeld. And then there was the gig that made him a household name: The first season of Dancing with the Stars, in which he made it to the finale and placed runner-up. (He got his revenge, though, when he beat winner Kelly Monaco in a "grudge match," voted on by viewers). He also did four years as host of The Family Feud (2006-2010).
But there’s one role that he loves revisiting most: Billy Flynn in the musical Chicago. He has appeared in the Broadway production and on tour off and on since 2006, including his latest nine-city tour, which comes to Fort Worth’s Bass Hall this weekend.
TheaterJones caught up with him to talk about the role, his famous voice, performing in Cowtown in the '80s and his wish-list role.
TheaterJones: You’ve played Billy for five years, off and on. What have you learned about that character over time?
John O’Hurley: For me this character sits very comfortably. The nuances for the character come with time. I’ve played it more than 1,000 times. When we started the [current] tour, I hadn’t done the show on Broadway since September, and I said "I don’t need any rehearsal. I can walk on stage and do the show tonight without opening the script." It’s something that lives inside of me. I think that’s a credit how good and well-structured this is, as a musical and the body of the book itself.
Is there a struggle to find something new in it every time you play it?
I make one promise to myself when I go onstage: I’m going to surprise myself sometime during the night. Something new will hit me, or a new piece of what I call evidence will reveal itself. So consequently the show gets deeper and more interesting to me. It never gets boring.
That’s what's fun with this show, if you just look at the dialogue, it’s almost like jazz writing. It has a beat to it. I hear an internal metronome with this show, but it gives me the opportunity, as someone who knows how to manipulate their voice, to use it. It takes the book and turns it into a musical instrument. It gives you a chance to chew to words or fire them out like a machine gun.
What is necessary in the actress playing Roxie, opposite you?
What I like is a kind of ditzy quality in Roxie. I think she’s better if you believe that she can seduce by being a little coquette. You really have to believe in her ability to seduce men, she just can’t help it. That’s the way she thinks. If she has that kind of M.O., she has two-thirds of the game won by that.
You are known for your voice and the ability to make the listener question whether you're being truthful or not. How did you learn to use it so well?
When my voice was changing back in the late ’60s, that was the age of the deejay and the great voices, and I listened to them. When I studied music I studied opera. Once you learn to use your voice, you can do anything well.
How do you keep it in shape?
I vocalize every day. I have a piano at home and I sing. I also do 15 different cartoons so I’m in the studio every day. I know where the voice is placed.
What kind of voiceover parts do you not like?
If it’s not funny, I don’t like it. If I just have to do things for straight reads, I’ll do them, but it’s not my love. I love to find that sense of irony that I’ve grown up with all my life. I like to find that little prize in the line.
Dancing with the Stars was a major point in your career. What was the most important thing it did for you?
It gave me my name back. Prior to that everyone knew me as J. Peterman. It was a way to learn dance and movement and be comfortable moving on stage. But more importantly, as a performer, especially in that first season when no one really knew what this thing was, it really was a leap into the abyss. [It was] the idea of someone who had made a career working to their strength, as an actor or singer, to go in and do something that wasn’t their strength, which was dancing. What you end up leaving with is a sense of confidence that no matter what you do, if you leap, the net will appear.
People ask me if I get nervous going onstage anymore, and I go 'no…why?' I’ve done the most difficult thing you can do, which is go out and dance in front of 27 million people─when you’re not a dancer. What else can you throw me?
And as a musical theater performer, honing your dancing skills couldn’t have hurt.
It’s more of an asset now than liability, perhaps that’s what the show taught me. That it’s part of my arsenal now. It used to be a foreign weapon to me.
You’ve performed in Fort Worth before?
Back in ’83 or ’84 I played the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance at Casa Mañana. I bet they still have a photo of me, wearing this big cheesy earring.
Is there a theater role you’re dying to do?
I’ll go against everything I just said and say the psychiatrist in Equus, Martin Dysart. I’ve always used that as a barometer of great theater. I think that’s one of the better roles written in the 20th century, and I think Peter Shaffer is one of our best writers for the theater. It’s like the modern-day Hamlet. I started loving that play back in college and wondered if I’d ever be old enough to play it. Here I am at 56, and I’m still wondering.