Now this is a superstar. Erika Slezak, winner of an unprecedented six best actress Emmys as Victoria Lord (Gordon Riley Burke Riley Buchanan Buchanan Carpenter Davidson Banks!) on One Life to Live, will celebrate her 40th anniversary with the soap on March 17. (The show airs an hour-long homage to this grandest of grande dames April 26.) TV Guide Magazine sat down for a chat with Slezak about all things Viki — the men, the magic, the memories.
TV Guide Magazine: What emotions wash over you when you contemplate this milestone?
Slezak: It's kind of weird, really. Before OLTL, I had never been on television. They said, "We're giving you a job for two years." That turned into four, then six, then 10, but how did we reach 40? It's kind of scary to think I've been in one place so long. [Laughs] But at the same time it's awesome!
TV Guide Magazine: You've never seemed driven to prove yourself outside of soaps. How come?
Slezak: Because OLTL still writes for me — every couple of years I get an amazing story — and they still pay me every Friday. It's tough for women in this business. Once you get those lines on your face it's like, "See ya. You're too old." But you can transcend that in daytime. I was never the ingénue or the juvenile. I was never movie-star beautiful. Oh, you could put makeup on me and pass me off, but I was never what people were looking for in those days — they weren't looking for actresses, they were looking for pretty people — but in a crazy way that turned out to be the best thing possible. This job has allowed me to have it all. My most important thing in life is being a mother and a wife. Thanks to ABC, I was home every night. I cooked dinner. We did homework. I never missed the important days at school, the plays, the Christmas concerts. We did it all.
TV Guide Magazine: You are part of a thrilling show business clan. Your grandfather, Leo Slezak, was a great opera tenor. Your father, Walter Slezak, was a beloved character actor and a Tony winner. Was it a given you'd go into the biz?
Slezak: Not at all! When I told my father I wanted to be an actress he sat me down for an hour or two and tried to scare the s--t out of me. "It's brutal! You won't work! People will tell you you're too short or too thin or too this or too that!" [Laughs] Well, nobody ever told me I was too thin! During World War II, my father worked in Hollywood under contract to RKO and was cast as a lot of Nazis [Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, Jean Renoir's This Land is Mine]. But then, as soon as the war was over, they dropped him because he had played Nazis — which he did at their request! And he didn't work again for almost five years. So his advice to me was always, "Save your money!"
TV Guide Magazine: Prior to OLTL you were a theater actress, trained in England. Any qualms about taking soap work?
Slezak: The most I ever made in repertory theater was $175 a week, so no! [Laughs] [OLTL] was willing to pay me more money than I'd ever made before and that's all I needed to know. Nobody ever said, "Don't do it." Though in later years I'd come across a bit of an attitude. I'd run into Ed Limato, was a very famous agent at ICM when I was starting out, and he'd say, "You still on that stupid soap?" I ran into Tommy Lee Jones a few years after he'd left OLTL and it was the same sort of thing. "You still on that show?" Tommy went off and had a wonderful career, but that doesn't happen to everybody. People still put daytime down, but most of them can't do it. They're used to doing film where you shoot maybe a couple of pages a day. My father became very proud of what I was doing. He even made a guest appearance on OLTL for three days or so, and when he left he said, "I never want to do that again! That's the hardest work I've ever done in my life!" For him, it was panic time from the moment he got there to the moment he finished. [Laughs] I said, "Welcome to daytime!"
TV Guide Magazine: Why has Viki stood the test of time?
Slezak: I credit [OLTL creator] Agnes Nixon. She developed an extremely unique character who is very bright and nonjudgmental yet deeply flawed because of her multiple personalities. Viki can be an aristocrat or a streetwalker. [Laughs] How do you top that?
TV Guide Magazine: Despite Viki's nine marriages, we don't think of her as an emotional fruitcake — like we do, say, with Erika Kane — or that Viki is disastrously unlucky in love. If, anything she's been a sensational partner.
Slezak: She's been very lucky in love, I think because she always marries for love. Well, except when she married Steve Burke. But other than that, she always goes into marriage with the very best of intentions. And with very real intentions. She's truly loved her men. Also, don't forget her marriage tally is high because a bunch of her husbands have died — Joe [Lee Patterson], Sloan [Roy Thinnes], Ben [Mark Derwin]. The only one she divorced over and over was Clint [Clint Ritchie].
TV Guide Magazine: Most stars in daytime would be blessed to be part of one supercouple during their careers. You've done it several times.
Slezak: I've been fortunate in that they've given me partners who were willing to share. Not every actor is unselfish. A lot of them are very selfish indeed and it's always all about them. Fortunately, I've never had that kind of guy. Even Clint, who wasn't necessarily the best actor in the world, was so wonderfully natural and pure and touching that we made a great pair. They used to call us The Cowboy and the Lady. I'm not saying Clint was a bad actor. He was a real-life cowboy. He wasn't used to acting, and television. But we found something that worked. Viki brought out a sweetness in him.
TV Guide Magazine: Let's talk about the downside of 40 years — the deaths and the losses, most especially the loss of Clint Ritchie and Phil Carey [Asa].
Slezak: To this day I'm still shocked that Phil and Clint died within the same week. How bizarre that was! It's especially hard knowing Clint is gone. Phil had been sick with lung cancer for a couple of years. We knew that he probably wouldn't be with us long. And he knew it, too. I mean, he smoked a hundred cigarettes a day at least. But Clint? That was out of the blue. Bucky died! When I heard the news it seemed so surreal. Whaat? How could it be? And Lee Patterson! I so loved working with Lee. He's gone, too. We had so much fun together. It's hard to think of them all being gone. I really miss Phil. As big as Asa's presence was on screen, Phil's presence was even bigger in the studio. Trust me, when Phil Carey was in the building, you knew it. [Laughs] And it was wonderful!
TV Guide Magazine: How have you coped with the changes in daytime? The audience erosion? The budget cuts?
Slezak: It's very sad to realize there are only six soaps left and that OLTL is the only one remaining in New York. When I joined, there must have been 20 soaps on the air! I guess it's the times, the economy. The budget cuts are necessary for us to stay afloat but I do see that they are making certain cuts — how do I say this? — that are not necessarily productive, especially when they make our crew double up and triple up on things. Quality is lost when one cameraman is trying to run two cameras at the same time, and it doesn't necessarily save time. It may save money but it doesn't save time. [OLTL executive producer] Frank Valentini is very good at working with what he's got and he keeps the morale up. He always makes a point of showing his appreciation. That's the good thing about our show. We keep going as a team. Sure, there are always one or two who prefer to remain outsiders, but for the most part we are a team.
TV Guide Magazine: How have you handled the incessant cancellation rumors?
Slezak: When OLTL moved studios, people were saying, "We're being canceled." When they moved All My Children to L.A. it was the same thing. "They're being canceled." But why would ABC spend all that money to move both shows and then drop them? You have to be reasonable about it. There is still a big and viable and devoted audience for our show. But if we get canceled, we get canceled. What can you do? I've had 40 years — that's 38 more than I thought I was going to have. I can't complain. And I did what my father said. [Laughs] I saved my money!
TV Guide Magazine: Robin Strasser [Dorian] told me she was kinda freaked when she heard Kim Zimmer was returning to OLTL as Echo — understandable given Zimmer's über-persona and rep for scene stealing. But Strasser said you calmed her down, assuring her that Zimmer's return was a very good thing. That gave me some real insight into you.
Slezak: Kim coming back to the show was a freakin' brilliant opportunity. Robin was indeed concerned. She came to me and said, "Erika, I just don't know about this." But I told her this could only be good for our characters and the show. Bringing back Echo delved into our history and brought up all that old animosity. It's just fabulous! And Kim is such a joy.
TV Guide Magazine: So you're not prone to feeling threatened?
Slezak: People in this business are so worried about being supplanted. But I just can't think about that. I just focus on holding my own.
TV Guide Magazine: So what's the scoop on your special homage episode?
Slezak: I haven't seen the script yet but I think it's going to include a lot of me. [Laughs] No flashbacks or anything. I think they're going to dredge up a lot of what's going on in Viki's life right now and how she's dealing with it. When Frank said, "We're writing a show for you," I was so touched I started to cry. It's so sweet. But I was kind of hoping it would all go by unnoticed.
TV Guide Magazine: Seriously? How could your 40th go ignored?
Slezak: I came to this show without a fuss — I crept in rather quietly — and when I leave I want to go out that way, too. I don't like fuss. It's a little embarrassing. But I think it's just so darling that they want to do this special show for me, and I am deeply honored. I only have one concern.
TV Guide Magazine: What would that be?
Slezak: That I do it justice.
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