Dancing alters career of former 'Peterman'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Many men have razzle-dazzled us with smooth dance moves: Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and John Travolta immediately spring to mind.

But John O'Hurley, now starring as sexy lawyer Billy Flynn in Chicago, deserves special props for executing the fanciest footwork in recent history. The 51-year-old actor has managed to foxtrot, tango and waltz his way from being a stooge to a stud.

That's no mean feat - especially when you've been pigeonholed as a completely different kind of show-biz being for a decade. Since 1995, O'Hurley has borne the mark of J. Peterman, the kooky catalog king he immortalized on Seinfeld.

"Peterman was an elegant buffoon who was a legend in his own mind," O'Hurley says. "He acted like Mr. Magoo." That said, when O'Hurley walked down a city street, "every other person would ask me about Peterman."

Things change. Thanks to the deft dips, elegant glides and the wry half-smile he displayed on ABC's hit reality competition Dancing With the Stars, O'Hurley says people are now keener on discussing his smooth ballroom moves than Peterman's treks to Burma.

O'Hurley doesn't want to sweep Peterman under the carpet - he's a part owner of the real J. Peterman company, after all, and is working on a reality show that involves that role. But he delights in the notion that his hoofing has swept people off their feet and allowed him to reinvent himself in the process.

"It has opened so many areas for me," he says.

The biggest is Broadway, where he's making his debut in the long-running Kander and Ebb revival about two murderous tootsies - Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart - and their oily lawyer, Billy Flynn.

"I wouldn't have been cast before I did Dancing With the Stars," he says. "I approached them. I said, 'I'd love to come in and do it.' They said fine."

A macho-man move, perhaps, but he was buoyed by his slimmed-down physique (the rigors of reality TV whittled 25 pounds off his 6-foot-4 frame) and the beefed-up chutzpah that inevitably comes from being the favorite of some 17 million viewers a week.

"[The show] was a big confidence builder," says O'Hurley, who toured in national productions of The Pirates of Penzance and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. "In the past, I could move on stage but I wasn't a dancer. I would never do a grapevine across the stage, drop on my left leg, then do a spin. I wouldn't do that because I didn't know how. Now I do know how to do it. And I insist on doing it."

Joe Dziemianowicz writes for the New York Daily News.

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