Day-Time Stars Magazine, November, 1973
I've Lived Like a Gypsy
Acting is a business full of pretty ladies - all you have to do is wander into
any casting office, or, easier, still, just switch on your TV! They come in all
sizes and shapes yet pretty ladies are one thing and real actresses are usually
quite another - until you meet Erika Slezak. Erika, who plays tormented
Victoria Lord on One Life to Live, combines both qualities so totally and
effectively that it's no wonder she's one of the soapsud queens - beloved,
beleaguered and beautiful!
If you talk to her for a minute, you can recognize her charm isn't a put-on. If
you spend an afternoon interviewing her as I did, well, you just might start
your own fan club.
How did Erika and One Life to Live happen? "Several years ago, after a very
tiring stint in repertory work, I went to Switzerland to visit my family for
three weeks. I ended up staying six months and when I returned to New York I
felt I'd probably never work again. I didn't have an apartment or any real
prospects so I stayed with a girlfriend for a week or so in deep despair." When
Erika talks, her voice jumps up and down, and from side to side. If she said
she was tired, she meant it. The same goes for deep despair.
"Then I got an offer to go the Arena Theater in Buffalo for six weeks which I
took. Just before I left I spoke to the casting direct of One Life who told me
to call her when I got back. I finally met her and the result was a call back
to read for their other show, All My Children. It just so happened though, that
the producers of One Life saw me and wanted me for that show, so within two
weeks after my return from Buffalo, I was Victoria Lord. All I can say is 'God
bless them all!' "
'Actually, my character is really a lot like me. The way I was brought up, I
mean, the traveling and the education. I led a kind of gypsy life for a while
and she didn't, but a lot it's the same. I'm not nearly as conservative as she
is though. She's constantly aware of manners, always well groomed, always looks
fantastic. But when I'm out on the street people very rarely recognize me
because I don't wear much makeup, I have my hair in pigtails, and I run around
in blue jeans. That's something Victoria Lord would never do. She's always got
her hair combed! People look at me and say, 'You're Viki?'
"I enjoy meeting people in public - only once did it really bug me. One very
cold day some kids were waiting outside the studio to catch a glimpse of the
actors. Anyway I came out and they asked for Viki's autograph and I said sure,
and just then I happened to look up and walking right towards us on the street
was Sir John Gielgud! I looked at all those kids, then I looked at him. All
the kids saw me looking at him and they looked too but paid no attention to him.
They started this, 'Viki, Viki' business again and I felt like crawling into a
little hole and dying. This great, great actor who's been great for so long -
to walk by totally unnoticed." She ended her story with her hands in the air
and a look of concern on her face.
Part of Erika's concern for Sir John's going unnoticed stems from the fact that
she trained for her career at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London -
where Mr. Gielgud's reputation as an actor is like Betty Crocker's as a cook!
"My family and I lived in Larchmont, New York for a long time but I went to
England when I decided to become an actress, at thirteen or fourteen, because my
father asked if I was really serious about it. I said, 'oh yes,' thinking at
the time it was easy. You know, just becoming an actress. He said, 'well,
look, there's so much competition, you might as well get the best training you
can because no daughter of mine is going to run around on her name only. You've
got to have training and you've got to be sure you have talent.'
I'm very indebted to him for that. So we looked for the best drama school
suited for me and sent for brochures and things. I considered the Max Rienhardt
School in Vienna but then I decided that I wouldn't really be acting in Germany,
which is what they teach in there. I heard about how good the Royal Academy was
and decided on that.
"I went back there three years after I graduated only to find it completely
changed. I talked to the steward there, who we called the bosun because that
was what he was in the Royal Navy. He said that my class was the last that was
any good. Probably the best thing I learned there was speech. When I left I
had an English accent thicker than a native's which I still use in repertory
work when I do an English play. It sounds real too. After all, I lived there
almost three years so it should."
Home for Erika today is a new apartment in one of those big comfortable West
Side New York buildings. She's only been there six months but the place has a
warm, hospitable quality, that says it's inhabited by someone who cares. The
furniture is a mixture of antiques - the couch I was sitting on was actually an
old trundle bed - and contemporary pieces, all obviously chosen with care.
"I'm going to recover that bed as soon as I find just the right material for the
cushions. I'm looking for a deep reddish brown corduroy but so far I haven't
had much luck. There's really so much to be done, like papering the dining
area, but it takes so much time and money. I made the curtains myself too. I
could never live in a Hollywood set kind of apartment where everything's been
chosen to look just so. I tried it once but I knew right away it wasn't for
Erika's dog, 207, came straggling into the room just then with a toy hamburger
complete with squeaker in his mouth. "He's a mixed breed and actually came from
the studio. The wardrobe woman, Thelma Reed, saw him running around her
neighborhood for a long time and finally brought him into the studio because he
had good manners. Someone had just abandoned him. He's such an actor himself,
it's beautiful," she said smiling. "He's a real sharpie and a good watchdog
I asked Erika if she'd like to do some movie work. "Yes, I'd like to do a film
but I'm not aching for one. I'm aching to do another play." If you didn't know
it already, for a daytime actor, to do a play, especially one as busy and
prominent as Erika it takes juggling a dozen schedules but mostly hers!
"I've been up for several things but there's been a little conflict with the
show, rehearsal schedules and so on. You do have an out clause on the show and
if you give them six weeks notice, you can leave for up to six weeks to do a
show. That only covers the out-of-town stuff if it's Broadway, they have to
want you badly enough to rehearse around you or let you rehearse at night.
"After all, my first commitment is obviously to the television show. I take my
work very seriously and never go out the night before I'm shooting a show -
which has been a lot lately! Makeup can't take away those ugly tired eyes. I
can't really go off on a skiing vacation for instance because if I break a leg,
I'm in trouble. I really feel you have a responsibility to all the people who
work with you and I'd never like to let them down."
"I didn't originate the part of Viki, I just happened to be in the right place,
at the right time, when they were looking for a new one. Of course it limits my
private life but my friends understand. Sometimes on the weekend my boyfriend
and I do marathon movie things. Last week for instance we saw Jeremiah Johnson
at 11 in the morning and then went to see Across 110th Street because Nat Polen
from One Life was in it. I don't see all the films I'd like to or all the
theater, but my work keeps me excited that I'm able to put up with it."
Erika Slezak's a girl who knows where she's heading and just how long she'll
take to get there. She has all the qualities that big stars are made of -
beauty, talent, and a naturally charming personality - but for now she's just
taking her time, relishing the moment, and not rushing into that big tomorrow.