John O’Hurley believes in following his inner voice. “Your purpose in life is to fulfill your imagination,” he tells Closer. “Anything my imagination tells me to do, I have to do it.” The performer’s trust in his instincts has taken him far. Best known for his portrayal of J. Peterman, Elaine’s inscrutable boss on Seinfeld, John is also the long-running host of one of television’s most beloved Thanksgiving traditions, The National Dog Show. The actor, 68, has appeared on daytime dramas, including All My Children, was the first-season winner of Dancing With the Stars, and the host of To Tell the Truth and Family Feud. John has also tried his hand as a composer, singer, author and the star of his own one-man show, A Man With Standards, in which he tells stories from his eclectic life and career and performs tunes from the Great American Songbook.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
With a sense of disgust that only a 3-year old can muster, I would put my hands on my hips and point to the black-and-white television in the corner of the living room. I would say, “Well, I am an actor, so that’s what I’m gonna be.” It’s not that I wanted to be an actor; I said I was an actor because I identified with everything I saw on television. I knew I was supposed to be there. So for me, my life has always been about connecting the dots as I went along.
It sounds like you never doubted this would be your life.
In my early years, I was doing plays in the basement for my parents and talent shows. I always watched The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson every night because that’s where the actors ended up. I did all the shows in high school and received a master’s degree in theater in college. However, I got really scared of the business because I didn’t know how to make a living at it. I really had to come to terms with the fact that show business is a business first, then the show.
Was that hard to reconcile?
Well, it took me four years to summon up the courage to take another shot at being a working actor. I went to New York in 1981 and got my first show 48 hours after I arrived. I haven’t stopped working since.
Of course, everyone remembers you from Seinfeld.
That show is obviously at the top of the heap because it was such a singular moment. It’s such an iconic show. Absolutely the best that was ever written. I just had some of the most incredible times on that show.
Did you have to work not to be typecast after Seinfeld? Your career has had so much diversity.
I believe that God speaks through imagination. He puts pictures in your mind of what you’re supposed to be doing. Your rational mind knows everything you’re afraid of, and it has an agenda. But your imagination? No agenda. It only knows the best of what you are capable of, and it always pushes you forward to the next thing you’re supposed to be doing.
What projects has your imagination led you to pursue?
My imagination told me I must do Dancing With the Stars. I was the first one they asked. I said to myself, “You know what? I don’t know how to dance. Shame on me.” So I did it. It was such an unusual thing, requiring such physicality, and we did it live. It was a stunningly memorable moment in my career.
Why is connecting with that inner voice so important for everyone?
I speak to corporations around the country as a motivational speaker. I do a presentation called The Peterman Guide to the Extraordinary Life. I basically give them three principles that they have to live by to achieve an extraordinary life. The first is you live by imagination. The second is you live by contemplation and the present moment. The third is appreciation.
I like that. Your life’s journey has also brought you to Broadway. What was that like?
Oh, I have had wonderful Broadway experiences. I have played over 3,000 performances of Chicago: The Musical (as Billy Flynn) and Spamalot (as King Arthur). I just love those two shows more than I can say.
You have also done a touring one-man show.
Yes, it’s a one-man musical I wrote about five years ago called A Man With Standards. I talk about growing up in the ’50s and ’60s surrounded by the songs from the Great American Songbook. I take the stories of my life, and I use that music to score them. It’s a very touching show and very funny. People who see it are surprised because they don’t know what to expect. However, the songs and stories are touchstones people relate to.
Since 2002 you’ve been hosting The National Dog Show on Thanksgiving Day.
It’s so successful. Thirty million people tune in to watch dogs being dogs, and it’s amazing. I love it. It’s been 21 years, and the show has become the place to tune in to between the parade and football.
Do you have any other new projects on the horizon?
Yes, I partnered with a company called Q5id, which allows for patented, proven identity verification. It’s an app that takes about three minutes to create an applicant ID, including a facial scan, a palm scan, and authentication of your government IDs. You will never have to use a username or password again! Plus, it’s encrypted and cannot be hacked. Unfortunately, the more mobility we have with the web, the more trouble. The web is growing darker and darker, but Q5id can fix that problem as the internet continues to become an everyday extension of our lives.
What do you like the best about where you are now in your life?
I feel like I am at a place where I am supposed to do something great, not just good or serviceable. That’s why I look to companies that have culture-changing ideas and work with them.