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John O'Hurley's four-legged Thanksgiving tradition

November 21, 2012
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For Maine native John O'Hurley, Thanksgiving would not be the same without the company of dozens of dogs, their handlers and upwards of 25 million people welcoming them into their homes.

Best known for his portrayal of 'Seinfeld's' J. Peterman, a fictionalized version of the real life fashion and accessory catalog magnate, O'Hurley will preside over his 11th consecutive 'National Dog Show' telecast on Thanksgiving day beginning at 12 noon on NBC.

On 'Seinfeld,' art imitated life for O'Hurley. On the 'National Dog Show,' life imitates art.

'One of the heads of NBC sports saw the movie Best in Show' about 12 years ago,' O'Hurley told me in a phone conversation last week. 'He said, If we were to put a dog show in between the parade and football, it would be great.' They almost laughed him out of the office. They did it, and we now have what's become one of the most successful events that NBC does all year long.'

In the hilarious Christopher Guest-directed film, the dogs being shown were handled by a group of sometimes maniacally competitive humans. I asked O'Hurley if the real-life version is anything like it.

'In the show arena, there are situations where people take their ownership and their showmanship a little too seriously,' he said. 'But most of the time, it's a family activity. Families go from show to show all year long they hop in the R.V. and go to the next show. It's a very large and interesting community.'

An author of two best-selling books about dogs, O'Hurley says that canines have been part of his life for as long as he can remember. 'The first dog that I can remember was a little daschund named Taffy when I was four years old,' he said. 'Dogs teach us extraordinary life lessons if we sit still long enough to observe them.'

O'Hurley laughs as he recalls one of the most unusual moments during his 11 years of hosting the 'National Dog Show' telecast 'About three years into the show, a great Dane walked by the NBC booth where (co-host) David Frei and I were sitting. He stopped, took one look at us, squatted down and left us a critique of our performance. It took something the size of elephant equipment to remove it.'

Not content to be glued to a specific field, O'Hurley has successfully juggled the following projects: Actor/singer (he is King Arthur in Monty Python's 'Spamalot' and Billy Flynn in 'Chicago'), author, pianist, composer, game show host ('Family Feud,' 'To Tell The Truth'), voice-over artist, public relations director of the American Red Cross, fundraiser for the Epilepsy Foundation, champion golfer and even co-owner of the company he helped lampoon during his 'Seinfeld' years.

'That's kind of an odd P.S. to the whole Seinfeld legacy'', O'Hurley told me. 'The year after Seinfeld' ended, J. Peterman was going through Chapter 11 bankruptcy. I got a call from him one day and he said, 'We're going to put the company back together. Would you like to come aboard and work from our parallel strengths?' I did and he and I have owned the company since 1999. If you go to www.JPeterman.com , you'll see the catalog that we parodied on Seinfeld.' It's still one of the most extraordinarily written catalogs in the world.'

He looks back on his 'Seinfeld' role with fondness. 'During the arc of the four seasons that I was on the show, J. Peterman just kept getting crazier and crazier,' O'Hurley said. 'I just threw myself into the material and allowed the writers to take this guy on kind of the lunatic ride that he was on for four years. For me, it was just a lot of fun to go in and play the absurdity of what they wrote.'

For millions of viewers, NBC's broadcast of highlights from the 'National Dog Show' has become a holiday TV tradition.

'It was kind of a natural transition when NBC decided that they were going to fill the slot between the Macy's Thanksgiving day parade and the many hours of football that follow,' O'Hurley said. 'They wanted to put something in there that all of America can watch, whether you're 5 years old or 95 years old. The National Dog Show presented by Purina' is a wonderful piece of family entertainment.'

Born in Kittery, O'Hurley looks forward to his next visit to Maine. 'We try to stop there at least once a year for a lobster roll,' he said. 'Since I was born there, I do have my minimum daily requirement of crustaceans.'

Mike Dow can be heard each morning on WABK -104.3 FM. Soon, he will also be heard on Big 104 104.7 and 107.7 The Biggest Hits of the '60s, '70s and '80s.

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