How a ‘Seinfeld’ Joke Became a Reality
For four seasons, John O’Hurley played the theatrically serious clothing magnate (and Elaine Benes’ boss) J. Peterman on Seinfeld. His character spoke with unapologetic pomposity as he attempted to inject the workplace with a sense of wonder and adventure, often to Elaine’s chagrin. It was a fun role for the actor – “I played like a mix of Forties radio drama combined with a little bit of a bad Charles Kurault,” he says with a verve similar to his character’s – who was surprised when he arrived on set to learn that J. Peterman was a real company run by a real John Peterman.
“The producers showed me the catalog, and it’s the most unusual clothing catalog in the world,” O’Hurley tells Rolling Stone. “It doesn’t have photographs. And instead of a little blurb and a price, it has an entire Hemmingway-style story about an Oxford button-down. Every piece that they do has an adventure, a sense of authenticity to it, a sense of respect and meeting. I was fascinated by it.”
As he portrayed this character, he got to know the real John Peterman well. He describes the personality of his real-life counterpart, who was born in Kentucky, as “diametrically opposed” to the one he played onscreen. “John Peterman walks the talk,” O’Hurley says. “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.” Through it all, O’Hurley remained on good terms with the company.
About a year after the Seinfeld finale, the J. Peterman company went through financial difficulties and the company was sold. The real Peterman managed to buy it back about a year and a half after that, and he decided to place a call to O’Hurley. “Are you interested in putting the company back together again under our parallel strengths,” he asked the actor. O’Hurley, who says he lives “by his imagination,” decided he couldn’t miss out on the opportunity.
Since 1999, he’s been a part owner of the company and serves on its board of directors. “It’s been a wonderful learning curve for me to learn another business outside of entertainment,” he says. “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.”
Now the company is embarking on another venture, a Kickstarter campaign with a goal, O’Hurley says, to liberate it from depending on banks. It’s attempting to raise $500,000 but as of press time, with three weeks left, it has raised less than a fifth of that. One of the rewards is an extension of Seinfeld, the Urban Sombrero – a hat the Elaine character dreamt up that almost ruined the company, as people bought it and fell asleep under it rather than working. O’Hurley believes it to be the “greatest sight gag of all time.” (The going rate for one on Kickstarter is $250.)
The real J. Peterman Urban Sombrero is still being made, O’Hurley says, though he’s seen a prototype. “It’s been designed by one of the top sombrero makers in Mexico,” he says. “Apparently, there’s a certain panache to that. This particular gentleman designed the sombrero for the Pope when he visited North America and made a stop in Mexico. Now he’s been shouldered with not only the Holy Father but Elaine Benes.”
He says he thinks it’s the perfect way to pay tribute to Seinfeld viewers who looked into the real company. “How else do we reward them with something that is intrinsically J. Peterman?” he says.