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Erika Slezak Library

Soap Opera Update
October 10, 2000 Vol. XIII No. 41

The Incomparable Erika Slezak

By: Sheila Steinbach

OLTL's Erika Slezak (Viki) once again touches the heart of daytime television

It takes a special actress to bring the emotional feelings and the awareness of a serious illness to daytime television and not turn off viewers with the reality of it. Erika Slezak is that special actress. The five-time Emmy Award-winning Outstanding Lead Actress has tackled another devastating time in her One Life to Live's character Viki's life, coming away from it more revered than ever. The story of Viki's battle with breast cancer has touched the hearts and minds of many people. "We've dealt with real issues that are serious before, but not like this one, not something as common and that affects as many people," she says.

Slezak admits that she wasn't cheerful when she first heard the show wanted to do this story some time ago. "They had just done this kind of story on General Hospital and Leslie Charleson (Monica) was so good in it. But Jill (Farren Phelps, Executive Producer) said they would do it differently.”

In the end, however, ABC shelved the idea at the time, and it was only recently that Slezak learned that they were finally going to do it. “I was actually very pleased that they let me do it, because I feel very deeply for breast cancer survivors. I don't have it, but it is in my family. I've always been very aware of it. I go for mammograms and checkups.”

“The odd thing is that as far as I know, I'm perfectly healthy when I go for those checkups. And every time I go, I sit there with all these other women waiting, having X-rays, and with me, for the last 10 years, they come in and say, 'we need to do some more pictures,' and I gulp. But I know to expect it—it's something they saw years ago that hasn't changed, but they're very careful and it's been going on for 10 years, I know they're going to come back and tell me that and then say it's fine. I certainly know the fear, the nerves of sitting there," she says.

Slezak did a great deal of research about breast cancer and talked with the show's medical advisor, Cora McCraw, and people at the studio who told her about their experiences with it, but it was a TV show that really showed her what it was like to go through what Viki was going to be tackling. "There was this program, a documentary about a woman who had a double mastectomy, but this wasn't just a documentary—it was, let's show you what it looks like, what an unreconstructed breast looks like, what a reconstructed one does. What I was curious about in order to play that thing—you can't exactly go and ask someone, and the books give you drawings—was what happens the first time you take off the bandages and you look and you see what's there. I needed to know what it looked like...and there it was!”

As part of Viki's journey, OLTL devoted an entire episode to following her on the day she entered the hospital. Slezak was very pleased with the way the show handled that aspect of the story. She was especially touched by the scene when Viki wanted to show Kevin where all the important papers were and tell him what he had to do in case she didn't make it.

As a mother in real life, Slezak knows how important it is that her children are well informed. She reveals that her father left a letter for his children which was very difficult to read, but heartbreaking and sweet, that she thought she would never do that, but she has. "I wrote each kid a letter telling them where all the important papers are. And so, I'm a wicked mother—I did it to my kids,” she laughs. “But it was mainly to give them information.”

In looking back over the scenes that have taken place in this story, there are many that stand out. The first time that Viki and Ben make love after her surgery was particularly moving. "Jill Mitwell, who is a brilliant director, directed that. She has an incredible eye and heart and soul. She told us this was not a scene about sex, this was a scene about fears, which I think is how it played. It became a loving, gentle, tender thing. I think that no matter how much somebody loves you, you have to think, 'He loves me, but he loves every part of me, and how is this going to change things?'

“One of the most wonderful things for me was at the beginning. Not to slight any other actor on the show, but I shared it all with Timothy Gibbs (Kevin), who is such a giving, sensitive actor. To have him there and to have that kind of support was wonderful. I've been very, very lucky on this show in that practically all the people who have played my kids have been very giving. And let's talk about Erin [Torpey, Jessica]. I don't think of Erin as new. The day I told the kids, that was a big thing because the three of them were so in there with me. They were just fabulous. It's hard, especially for someone as young as Erin. There was a scene in the kitchen during taping where she started crying and I started crying. During the dress rehearsal, she was really trying to hold it together. Nothing makes you cry faster than someone you love in tears,” says Slezak.

“So there have been big high points, and one of them has been Mr. Mark Derwin (Ben), who will not let me be unhappy,” she says, laughing. “He's just so cheerful and up and delightful. He's a joy to work with,” she says with a big smile on her face.

Now that Viki's gotten the good news that her cancer has not spread, will that mean we'll be hearing wedding bells for her and Ben? “You betcha, cookie!” Slezak says with a big laugh. “I don't know when. I've been told there will be wedding bells in the future. I haven't had a costume fitting yet, so don't hold you're breath, but I think so. I think the audience deserves it. I deserve it!” she says, laughing, as she goes off to weave her special magic as Viki.

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