In 1996, Elaine Benes pitched an idea for a hat to her boss, Jacopo Peterman, that was so bad that Peterman lost his mind and traveled to Southeast Asia to find himself.
Later on in this Season 8 episode of "Seinfeld," Peterman inexplicably puts Benes in charge of the J. Peterman Company, allowing her to stubbornly release the hat idea. By the end of the episode, Benes discovers the hat is such a disaster that people are getting fired from their jobs just for showing up to work wearing it.
This may seem like yet another characteristically unrealistic "Seinfeld" plot with no basis in reality. You probably didn't even know the J. Peterman Company was real. But almost two decades later, the actor who played Jacopo Peterman now owns part of the actual retail company the show had been spoofing all along. And the real J. Peterman Company is releasing the very product that sent the "Seinfeld" character mad -- the urban sombrero.
Actor John O'Hurley told The Huffington Post that he was "crying in [his] beer" when he first got offered the Peterman role on "Seinfeld," as his own television series, "A Whole New Ball Game," had been canceled earlier that day. This quick reversal in fortunes led to O'Hurley becoming a regular on the show, as he portrayed someone who became an iconic character.
Throughout the series, he befriended the real Peterman (actual first name, John, not Jacopo) and later became business partners with him, gaining a part ownership of the J. Peterman Company in 2001. Despite O'Hurley's involvement, the company has refrained from releasing "Seinfeld"-inspired products for years. But now, in 2016, a change in direction for the J. Peterman Company is causing "Seinfeld" to finally become more like real life, albeit in an unexpected way.
Below is HuffPost's conversation with O'Hurley, in which he talks about taking over the company he parodied and his decision to finally emulate the show by featuring the urban sombrero on the front cover of the J. Peterman catalog.
J. Peterman is a real company and person. "Seinfeld" based the character off the eccentric writing in the actual company's catalog.
When O'Hurley first won the part of Jacopo Peterman, he only had the real J. Peterman Company catalog to base the character on. "The script hadn't been fully written," said O'Hurley, who added with a laugh, "which was pure 'Seinfeld.' They were the most disorganized show on television."
According to the actor's recollection, the show writers told him they wanted the character to "sound the way the catalog is written, as though these Hemingway-style adventure stories were just dripping off his tongue."
The catalog is memorably distinct due to product descriptions that imagine heroic things that will happen to those who purchase the advertised items. The descriptions often suggest a romantic encounter will occur worthy of an old Humphrey Bogart film. Coupled along with these descriptions, the company also doesn't use real photographs of the products, instead opting for hand drawings.
O'Hurley recalled thinking that the J. Peterman catalog was "the most unusual catalog [he] had ever seen."
John Peterman, the businessman, didn't object to the parody. Unexpectedly, the two Johns ended up becoming close friends.
O'Hurley claimed that "Seinfeld" never asked for permission to create this character based on the real-life Peterman. "They just did it," said O'Hurley. "That was the 'Seinfeld' way they did things. They'd say, 'Well, sue us and we'll just make more of an issue out of it.' It would be easier to get the apology rather than the permission." Patti Ganguzza, who managed clearances for product placement on the show, did not initially respond to a request to verify this information.
Still, since J. Peterman was a real brand, the show eventually had to get Peterman's approval on an episode to episode basis for how "Seinfeld" portrayed the actual company. According to O'Hurley, Peterman luckily ended up enjoying the parody and never suggested a rewrite.
The two Petermans -- real and fictional -- ended up meeting while O'Hurley was still on the show and became unlikely friends. "I collect wine and he collects adventures, and so I would send wine to him and he would, in return, send me clothes," said the actor.
O'Hurley eventually became an owner of the J. Peterman Company. So, "Seinfeld" became real life.
The popularity of the J. Peterman character on "Seinfeld" caused the actual company's sales to boom. O'Hurley, who as a part-owner has familiarity with the finances of J. Peterman, claimed that the company jumped from $15 million in sales before the show to about $75 million in sales at its height.
However, in 1999, less than a year after the show ended, J. Peterman filed for bankruptcy. Paul Harris Stores then purchased the company and Peterman was pushed out. When this Harris iteration of the business failed as well, John Peterman gave O'Hurley a call out of the blue.
"I got a call one day as I'm leaving New York City on the way to the airport and it's John Peterman," recalled O'Hurley. "And he says, 'I've got the intellectual property rights back for the company. Are you interested?'"
After all these years of being friends with Peterman, O'Hurley felt as if he shared a mindset with the adventure-seeking clothes purveyor. He was interested and decided to become the real-life manifestation of his famous "Seinfeld" character. "I had a good-sized wallet, too," O'Hurley joked. "So, he took advantage of that."
Along with being a part-owner and member of the board of directors, O'Hurley has also contributed to the catalog just as his character would. "Every now and then, I will find something in my travels around the world that I find interesting and that I think is brand specific," said O'Hurley. "So, I place [those] in the catalog."
The urban sombrero is finally going to be on the cover of the J. Peterman catalog, just like it was on the show.
"If we've had a core problem with the company, it has been that John [Peterman] has been slow to embrace the attachment to 'Seinfeld,'" claimed O'Hurley. "It's something that he's never been truly comfortable with. As much as it was and has been a significant boost to the identity of the company, he's never been one to really embrace the attachment. He started off authentic and I represent the parody of that. So, we have cross purposes."
Still, O'Hurley has fought again and again for the company to include nods to "Seinfeld." With the upcoming release of the urban sombrero, O'Hurley feels like he has won a hard-fought battle. "After years of arguing with John back and forth in the board room about actually using the urban sombrero ... we're finally going to release it."
Just like when Elaine ran the fictional company, the J. Peterman Company will be putting the urban sombrero on the front of its upcoming catalog. The sombrero won't look exactly like the one from the show, as that was "just a sombrero" according to O'Hurley.
"The hat designer is actually the same one who did the sombrero for the Pope when he visited Mexico," said O'Hurley. "So, apparently it comes with a touch of panache."
The company will only make a few hundred urban sombreros and then sell them until they run out. "And that's it, no more and never again," claimed the actor.