Episodes, May/June 1990
An American Dynasty
By: Theresa Kump
Step into Erika Slezak's dressing room and you meet a woman who seems somehow
younger and smaller than her commanding TV alter-ego, Victoria Lord Buchanan of
One Life to Live. Without makeup, Erika looks more like a college student than a
soap opera star. Her pale blonde hair is brushed back from her face, and her
light blue eyes are intelligent and frank. Seated at the desk in her small,
spare dressing room, Erika is surrounded by family photos. Her children 's
crayon drawings are proudly tacked up alongside a photo of Erika accepting one
of her two Daytime Emmy awards. This is clearly a woman who cherishes both
family and career.
But then, for Erika Slezak, the two have always been intimately intertwined.
Married to actor Brian Davies, she is also heiress to a rich family tradition in
the performing arts as the daughter of stage and screen actor Walter Slezak and
granddaughter of the renowned opera singer Leo Slezak.
“I feel very privileged to be a part of this family,” says Erika. "I kind of
feel that I haven't lived up to my potential in it," she adds modestly. "I have
had, my own success in a different field, and I think that what I do, I do very
well. I would hope that they are proud of me."
The Slezak theatrical dynasty was founded by Erika's grandfather, whose
beautiful tenor voice lifted him out of poverty and made him a star. Born in
Czechoslovakia in 1873 and trained as a locksmith, Leo Slezak was discovered
while working backstage in an opera house, and he made his singing debut at 23.
He soon became known for his interpretations of Wagnerian roles, and by the time
his son Walter was born in 1902, Leo Slezak's reputation rivaled that of Enrico
Caruso. "He was a star in the fashion that people are rock stars today,"
explains Erika, and mobbed by fans wherever he went.
Walter Slezak was raised in luxury; his family lived in a 14-room apartment
in the heart of Vienna, opposite the opera house, and he was educated in
exclusive schools whose curricula included riding, fencing, and dancing. At the
age of 19, Walter, with his movie-star good looks, began appearing in German
films and enjoying the 1920s Berlin life style later depicted in Cabaret.
Walter's American career began in 1930, with his Broadway debut in Meet My
Sister, and it spanned over 40 years. He played in nearly a dozen Broad-ay shows
and won a Tony award for his performance in Fanny. He also appeared in 33 films,
including Lifeboat with Tallulah Bankhead, The Pirate with Judy Garland and Gene
Kelly, and the now-classic Bedtime for Bonzo with Ronald Reagan. There were also
countless performances on radio, as well as on a variety of TV shows, from
Rawhide and Dr. Kildare to Batman and Love Boat .
"[My father] said
that just because I was his daughter didn't mean I'd ever get a job. It didn't mean I was talented.”
Walter married Dutch opera singer Johanna Van Rijn in 1944, and their
children-lngrid, Erika, and Leo-were born in Hollywood. But in the late 1950s,
the Slezaks moved east, settling in exclusive Larchmont, New York, and it is
here that Erika's fondest childhood memories begin.
When they first moved to this wealthy community outside New York City, the
Slezaks rented a large, rambling house across the street from the Kerr family.
Playwright Jean Kerr was the author of Please Don't Eat the Daisies, a book
later developed into a popular TV series. She and her husband, theater critic
Walter Kerr, and their six children were special friends to the Slezaks. "The
Kerrs were my parents' very closest friends, says Erika, who laughingly
confirms that the boisterous family was every bit as much fun as they were
portrayed to be in their TV incarnation. "It was a wonderfully crazy household,"
Eventually, the Slezaks bought a home of their own, a gorgeous 18th century
colonial on five acres of land with a breathtaking view of the Long Island
Sound. “We loved that house” recalls Erika, who remembers it filled with lots
of animals and children. “We always had friends over, and in the winter
everybody would come to our house to ice-skate on the little river that ran on
"I grew up in an extraordinarily happy house," says Erika. "I had a wonderful
childhood. It is something that I am hoping very much to duplicate for my
children, The kind of atmosphere at home, the love, the sharing, the discipline,
the humor. It was a very European household, but a relaxed European household."
Her father had been raised in a more traditional way, she explains, "He spent
his days with his governess and nurses, He never had dinner with his parents, He
was paraded in front of them at bedtime just to give them a kiss." Not so with
his own children. We had a housekeeper to help out, but my mother was always
there," remembers Erika. "My father was very much the head of the family, but he
was incredibly loving and very warm and very generous with us. I adored him.”
Although the Slezak children ,were aware of their family's performing
tradition-"The sense of my grandfather was ever-present in our house," confides
Erika, and we grew up hearing what a magnificent, fantastic, god-like
creature he was!" Walter kept his family life separate from his professional
Yet, her father's delight in his acting career made an indelible impression.
"What translated itself very much to me was the way my father felt about his
work," says Erika. "And that's what I wanted, that kind of happiness and freedom.
That sense of really loving what you do and being able to create wonderful
characters and make people laugh and cry. As a result," she says, “it never
occurred to me that I would be anything but an actress."
Walter's response to his daughter's acting ambitions was to sit her down at
the age of 13 and tell her "everything bad that he could think of about the
business,” chuckles Erika. And it went on for quite awhile, because there is a
lot of bad in this business if you think about it. He said that just because I
was his daughter didn't mean I'd ever get a job. It didn't mean I was talented,
he said, and if I wasn't talented, I could be wasting my life. But I was
Since Erika was determined to act, Walter decided she must have proper
training at the best drama school, and after much research, they selected the
prestigious Royal Academy in London. "I was very young," says Erika, noting that
she'd skipped the eighth grade. At 17, she was one of the youngest students ever
accepted to the academy.
“I grew up in an
extraordinarily happy home and had a wonderful childhood. I am hoping very much
to duplicate that for my children.”
“'When I look back on it now, I should have gone to college first. I think
that I missed out, not so much on the education, but on the social aspect, which
is a major part of growing up," she muses.
Erika says that she also found that her parents' blissfully happy marriage
had left her with unrealistic expectations. "I grew up thinking that's how
married life is....and boy, was I in for a surprise!" she says, ruefully. She
married her first husband, also an actor, at 21. "He was a perfectly charming,
nice fellow, but he just wasn't my father, and he certainly never treated me the
way my father treated my mother," she remembers. “I grew up very quickly.”
She met her present husband, Brian Davies, when they appeared together
off-Broadway. "I thought long and hard," she says, before getting married again.
“But I had grown up and learned a lot. Brian is not at all like my father, but
he's just as wonderful in other ways.”
Indeed, Erika says Brian is a marvelous father, content to let his own career
take a back seat to his wife's while their children are young so that he can
provide them with a secure, happy home: A Broadway star- he originated the roles
of Rolf in The Sound of Music and Hero in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to
the Forum- Brian was busy doing movies and television in Los Angeles when the
couple first married. The arrival of son Michael in 1980 complicated their
bi-coastal arrangement. "Michael stayed with me in New York, and we would fly to
California on weekends," Erika explains.
Brian finally tired of being an absentee father and, after the birth of
Amanda in 1981, he settled in New York for good. Today, Brian shares child-care
duties with Erika and the family's housekeeper, accepting only local or
short-term acting jobs. "He's the lucky one," says Erika. "He spends time with
the children. And they don't know how lucky they are!"
With successful actors' for parents and the Slezak genes in their blood, it
wouldn't be surprising if Michael and Amanda gravitated toward the stage.
"Michael is the unfortunate thing known as the class clown, because he's funny,”
admits Erika, a note of motherly pride creeping into her voice. "He's a very
bright kid-both of them are-and very vocal about it. And in the school
productions he's been in so far, he sticks out like a sore thumb because he is
so naturally at home on the stage. And they both want very much to be on One
Life to Live,” she laughs. “They come in and visit me once in awhile, and they
think it's fun.”
But Erika resists the idea of show-biz careers for her children. "I don't
want them anywhere near this business" she says emphatically. "I think it's a
very difficult profession, fraught with too much anxiety. I've been very lucky."
However, she admits that "there is, unfortunately, no way of stopping them if
that's what they want to do. So my husband and I have made a pact with each
other to see that they both have the best education we can possibly give them.
They have to go to college and have a profession, something they can fall back
on, and after that, if they want to be actors, fine. But there are only so many
Al Pacinos and Dustin Hoffmans, stars who can pick and choose their material, be
wonderful, and make enough money to keep themselves and their families happy."
And she recalls fondly what her father once said to her. After a lifetime of
being recognized by strangers on the street, first as the son of Leo Slezak, then
as a movie star in his own right, Walter's proudest moment came when he was
strolling with Erika in New York one day and a fan stopped to ask, “Are you
Erika Slezak's father?" Walter turned to his daughter and said, "I've been
waiting all my life for that.” Perhaps one day it will be Erika's turn to feel
the same way.
Theresa Kump is a
free-lance writer and frequent contributor to Parents and New Choices Magazines.