January 27, 1997 12:00 PM

SPEND A MORNING AT HOME WITH John O’Hurley, and you would swear you’d stepped right into the pages of the chic, deliciously overwritten J. Peterman catalog, where the chamois in a men’s sports shirt can be described as “soft, or even softer, than a woman’s throat…but enigmatically strong.” O’Hurley, 41, who strode onto NBC’s Seinfeld last week in an encore performance as Elaine’s boss—a dashing, slightly daft mail-order king very much unlike the real J. Peterman—seems to have taken his character to heart. Inside his Spanish-style, one-bedroom Hollywood loft, the burly O’Hurley, a 6’3″, 195-lb. oenophile and sportsman, is wearing a taut, black cotton long-sleeved shirt and sublimely pleated, rough-hewn khakis that didn’t come from the upscale catalog but might have. “I dress very elegant or very casual or elegant-casual,” O’Hurley explains, falling naturally into sonorous Petermanese.

On a tour that includes a peek into a hall closet filled with chambray shirts and Armani suits, O’Hurley shows off his award-winning case of 1989 Chateau Beaucastel (“It’s a heavy-bodied wine with a little perfume on the end of it,” he observes) and a coffee table he fashioned from two iron-framed, 18th-century Indian prison windows (“Yeah, I’m a carpenter, too,” he says). Then O’Hurley regales his visitor with an account of the 500-mile salmon-fishing trek he and a buddy took into Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park last June. “We even set up a bear trap with fish,” he recalls, “hoping to get a look at some grizzly.”

Although the bears managed to resist his come-on, O’Hurley’s Seinfeld colleagues are awed by his panache. “Every time he comes to the set,” says co-executive producer Peter Mehlman, “he’s freshly tanned from bone-fishing in the Keys or visiting some other exotic location.”

And with nary a strand of hair out of place. “He’s the only guy I know who can camp in all-white clothes and never get dirty,” marvels one friend, actor Bryan Cranston (who once played a sex-crazed dentist on Seinfeld).

Nevertheless, O’Hurley, a former soap opera stud (The Edge of Night, Santa Barbara), is a bit nonplussed by his Seinfeld exposure. “It’s like being traded to the Chicago Bulls,” he says. Like the show’s Soup Nazi and George Steinbrenner, J. Peterman has become a cult phenomenon. Fans beg O’Hurley to autograph their J. Peterman catalogs. At a party last March, says O’Hurley, “Tom Hanks came up and imitated Peterman. He said he’d been reading the catalog for years.”

Even the real J. (for John) Peterman, 55, a Lexington, Ky., businessman who started his company nine years ago, is bemused by O’Hurley’s performance, although he grumps good-naturedly that his TV incarnation “makes me look like an ass.” Peterman adds, “I’ve been eccentric, and I run around the world a lot. But I just don’t act like he does. I don’t think I’d be called stiff.”

Funny, that’s just how O’Hurley’s pals describe him. “They call me the perfect man because I have a tendency to look a little coiffed,” he says. “The TV character really is me. He’s got a little stick up his butt, and so do I. I believe in the importance of carriage.”

For that he credits his proper upbringing in affluent West Hartford, Conn. “My mother [Jean, a 60ish homemaker] is Princess Grace,” he insists, “and my father [John, 68, an ear, nose and throat surgeon] is Robert Young.” The actor’s boyhood idol, though, was Lloyd Bridges: John, the second of four siblings, would don swim trunks to watch Sea Hunt on TV.

In his sophomore year at West Hartford’s Kingswood-Oxford prep school, O’Hurley was encouraged by a teacher to begin trying out for plays. But a year later, in 1970, the first of several tragedies shook him. His older sister Carol died of an epileptic seizure at 17. “They were great buddies,” says his mother. “He felt the loss tremendously. It was so sudden.”

Though acting remained O’Hurley’s passion—as a drama major at Providence College, he played Biff in Death of a Salesman—he settled for a more stable career in public relations. But in 1979, O’Hurley’s best friend, Bob Swain, a high school teacher, died in a car crash at 26. “He had lived life on his own terms,” says O’Hurley. Inspired to do likewise, the then 24-year-old quit his office job and drove to New York City to make it as an actor. But after checking into a roach-infested Manhattan hotel room, “I sat down on the bed,” he recalls, “and burst into tears. I asked myself, ‘What did I just do?’ ” Two days later he nabbed a part in an Off-Broadway play and obtained an agent, who helped him nail soap opera roles, including good and evil twins on ABC’s Loving in 1984 and a doctor on CBS’s The Young and the Restless from 1989 to 1990.

Offscreen, his love life had its own share of drama. O’Hurley won’t talk about his yearlong engagement to actress Louan Gideon (Search for Tomorrow), whom he met in 1985. Nor will he say much about his marriage to another soap diva, Eva La Rue (All My Children), whom he met during his first year on Y&R, when she was hosting a syndicated revival of Candid Camera. The couple wed in 1992, then split up two years later. “It just left me with a broken heart. I’ll leave it at that,” O’Hurley says. He remains “good friends,” he says, with both women.

O’Hurley’s lifelong romance with acting has also logged a few setbacks. “Casting agents always had me as costume villains,” he complains. “I was dying to play against myself.” Still, it was his natural tendency toward uprightness and sartorial perfection that gave him an advantage over dozens of other hopefuls auditioning for Seinfeld. “It was no contest,” says producer Mehlman. “There’s his voice—and that wild look in his eyes. He completely occupies the character.”

Soon enough, O’Hurley may be occupying, his own series as a Petermanly forest ranger—”a cross between Dudley Doright and Euell Gibbons,” says O’Hurley—in a proposed sitcom called Second Nature.

His first love, however, remains his Seinfeld alter ego. Last month, O’Hurley finally got to meet the real Peterman when both actor and entrepreneur were booked on Fox’s After Breakfast. “He’s a sweet southern gentleman,” says O’Hurley. “He told me his 85-year-old mother is a diehard Seinfeld fan.” O’Hurley, in turn, has become a devotee of the J. Peter-man catalog. “He’s a man after my heart,” O’Hurley says of his namesake. “He was wearing a cowboy hat and clothes from his catalog.” As for himself, says O’Hurley, “I was a study in beige.”

MICHAEL A. LIPTON

JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles

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