Soap Opera Weekly
March 26, 1991, Volume 2 Issue 13
20 Years Of Viki
Through The Eyes Of Erika Slezak Llanview's Leading Lady
By: Freeman Gunter
HER FATHER WALTER WAS A
renowned and beloved actor/comedian of the international stage and screen; her
grandfather Leo, a magnificent tenor, was one of the golden voices of operatic
history. With these bloodlines, and a diploma from London's prestigious Royal
Academy of Dramatic Arts, Erika Slezak was headed toward a career in classical
drama when she won the role of Victoria Lord on One Life to Live. She liked it.
That was 20 years ago, and what has happened from that day to this is now
firmly engraved in the ongoing annals of television history. The long, suffering
Viki is arguably the classic soap opera heroine, a modern-day Pauline with a
never-ending supply of perils to surmount. And surmount them she does with a
dazzling, virtuoso style that has earned Slezak two Emmy awards, and with warmth
and heart enough to capture the devotion of an army of admirers.
When a new actor appears on OLTL, the first person to greet him and show him
around is Erika Slezak. Why would she bother to add welcome wagon to her already
formidable list of responsibilities?
I remember how frightened I was, that feeling of "Oh, my God, what if I throw
up? What if I forget my lines?" I always try to put people at their ease,
especially if it's a new contract player. They see everybody so busy, so
confident and part of things, bantering and joking around, and they don't even
know where the bathroom is. I try to make them comfortable because to my dying
day I will not forget the ones who did that for me on my first day. I was a
23-year-old- frightened-to-death kid.
FREEMAN GUNTER: Did you have any inkling what your first day on the
job would lead to?
ES: I came
from doing repertory theater. 1 never had a job that lasted longer than eight or
nine months at a time. When I was offered this job, they gave me at two-year
contract. My father was dancing on the rooftop, saying,"Two years, two years!
How wonderful!" Suddenly, the two years were up and I wondered, "Where did they
go?" I called my agent and said I'd like to stay. And thats kind of the last
thing I remember.
Next thing I know; somebody is telling me, "You've been here 20 years." That
stopped me in my tracks because 20 years is a very long time. It's all gone by
me because I've kept so busy. They've kept it fun and interesting for me. There
was a period in the middle when it wasn't that much fun. But then when Paul
Rauch (the current producer) came, he refocused the show and made it fun again.
Since he arrived, I've done nothing but hop back and forth between heaved and
earth, Eterna and the Old West, Viki and Niki. He doesn't let me sit still for
FG: An actress working in films or on stage can always turn down a
script that doesn't suit her, but you're in this for the duration. What do you
do when you are handed pages that strain credibility?
do it. I have no input with the writers. We have a nice relationship, but I do
hot presume to tell them how to do their work. They are kind enough to allow me
to make a suggestion every now and then, and I certainly would not abuse-the
privilege. If I have a problem I go to Paul and he either says, "Do it, tough,"
in which case I do it, tough. Or he says,"Let me see what I can do." But this
comes up very rarely because, quite frankly, this is not real life.
Sometimes I say, "How can they do this to my character? All these years of
working on her, trying to make her credible, and then they suddenly do this!"
But I quickly come to my senses. I hit myself in the head and say, "Hey this is
TV! This is not real life. If it were real life, we wouldn't do half this
stuff." Viki does things no mother in her right mind would do.
FG: Is there anything that would make you absolutely put your foot
down and refuse to have Viki go. through if they suggested it?
that I can think of, because on television you can do anything to anyone and
explain it away. You can go to heaven and have a wonderful experience there and
if you want to make it real, you say, "Fine. It was all in her mind. She was in
a coma and she dreamed it." The Old West was a bit like that. I loved that
FG: That's when I fell in love with you as an actress. This character,
Miss Ginny, was not Viki's opposite as Niki is. She was very much like Viki, and
yet there were subtle differences. There was a gallantry about her that often
moved me to tears.
you. I have to tell you that of all the years I've played on this soap, she's my
very, very favorite character. It was the first time that I took a lady from
scratch because Victoria was established when I came. She was already who she
was and I had been preceded by a wonderful actress, Gillian Spencer. But Ginny
was mine from the beginning.
“When I first
joined the show, Erika was very, very pregnant.
She used to literally run
from her dressing room upstairs to her set.
She had all this energy and. I'd
scream, 'Slow down!' She'd yell, 'I'm alright!' ”
Paul asked me what I could do to make her different, not just a prim, proper
schoolteacher. I told him, "No, she's not prim. She's a frightened little girl;
and during the period of the story; she's going to grow up." And that's exactly
what she did. She went through all the stages that a child goes through in
growing up, and she had to do it in three months. She had almost given up on
life and then she fell in love; desperately, like a schoolgirl. She had to throw
herself at Clint and deal with the embarrassment and shame of that, of begging
him to make love to her, which you didn't do in those days. And then when she
came out of it all, the final relationship with Randolph which was so
satisfactory, so mature.
There was a joy, an; excitement, a sweetnesss and a vulnerability about her
that I just loved. I loved her very much and I missed her for quite a while
afterwards. I love the whole period; I felt comfortable in the clothes and with
the kind of primness of that time. If only they hadn't had what we jokingly
called "the revolving door" out in the desert with Clear Eyes. If they hadn't
crossed that line, the whole thing would have been very realistic.
FG: Longtime fans of OLTL remember Lee Patterson as Joe Riley. Of
course Clint is Viki's one true love, but in the beginning it was Joe. How would
you compare Viki's love for Joe with her love for Clint?
ES: I think
every woman at some point has loved someone she's not supposed to love. Maybe
the family doesn't approve or he's not good enough. Viki took a risk in loving
Joe. He was the Irishman from the other side of the tracks. Victor Lord hated
him, thought he was an opportunist. But Viki loved him with a great passion. He
was a young woman's first passionate love. Clint was a much more mature love, a
very 'deep love, and they've certainly been through, God knows, everything
But did you know that Bob Woods (Bo) was originally brought onto the show for
Viki? When I was 8 months pregnant, I did Bob's audition tape. Then I left to
have my baby. I didn't watch the show for a month and a half and when I tuned
in, there was Bo having a love scene with Pat Ashley (Jacqueline Courtney).
Jokingly, I called Joe Stuart (the producer at that time) and said, "Hi, it's
Erika. I just turned on the show and not only did you give away my coffee cup,
you gave away my boyfriend!" He was not amused. He said, "It's my show and I'll
do what I want with it."
FG: In this notoriously youth-oriented medium, consistently you have
had front-burner, romantic storylines, the kind usually given to teen-agers in
frankly, I credit my producers, all of them, for being intelligent enough to
realize that the world is not peopled with 21-year-olds. The people who buy TV
sets and set viewing patterns are older - in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and older.
Just because you get older doesn't mean you get uninteresting.
FG: Nevertheless, that is the perception in the industry.
ES: The Young
and the Restless came on and declared that everybody had to be under 30. Oh,
please! Tune in today and you'll see they're all over 30 now!
FG: They come and go, but Viki is still viable.
ES: I have to
say I've been extremely lucky in two things: My producer has always seen that
people don't necessarily lose it as they get older, Hell, I'm not old. I'm 44. I
have also been lucky in that I've always had very handsome and sexy leading men
- big, strong, sexy guys with - a lot of you know what.
FG: Let's talk about the Emmys. How do you feel about them?
ES: I am very
proud of my Emmys. That's an understatement. I am extraordinarily proud of my
Emmys. They are in my living room. My father won a Tony award for the musical
Fanny in 1955 and his Tony is there, too. Everytime I look at those Emmys I
think "Whoa! Those are really mine!" It means everything in the world to me that
somebody thought I was that special and that good to give me those golden
statues. I am proud and very grateful.
FG: I hoped you'd win in '89 for the Miss Ginny storyline.
frankly, between you and me, I hoped that I would win that year, too, because I
was very proud of that work. But I wasn't even nominated. I really can't
complain, though. I don't knock the Emmys because I believe they are a real
inspiration, something to work for and to hope for.
FG: It must have been thrilling to work with your dad on the show.
Whose idea was that?
Quinlan, the producer. I think she thought of it the minute she first hired me.
She became close friends with both my parents and she bugged and bugged my
father to make a guest appearance on the
“The woman is an
awesome talent, a complete professional
who can handle any task no matter
- and believe me, some of them are - and make it live.
her presence I am rendered an admiring and speechless beginner.”
show. Finally, he was scheduled to be in New York for some other reason and
Doris got him to agree to appear for five days. Other than a tiny part I once
played in something he was starring in, this was the first and only time we ever
got to work together. And it was worth it. I already had a father on the show,
so they made him my godfather from Europe who hadn't seen me in many years. My
father asked the writer, Gordon Russell, if he'd mind if he made a few changes
in the script. My father rewrote the whole thing. He was supposed to say,
"Victoria, you are so beautiful. As beautiful as I remember you." Of course,
when it came to taping he said; "Victoria, you are so beautiful. You could be my
own daughter." In those days, we didn't stop the tape, so I had to play the rest
of the scene in tears. He used to do that to me a lot."
FG: I suppose you still don't stop tape if you can help it.
ES: They stop
tape all the time now, for any reason at all.
FG: Do you like it better running or stopping?
ES: I like it
better running. I don't like stopping because you lose momentum and you lose
interest. You lose everything, all the energy of the scene. Also, in those days,
everybody knew their lines.
FG: Are you saying there is less discipline in daytime TV these days?
you've got me on my favorite subject. Yes, there is a total disintegration of
discipline, and I swear it exists in young people and by young people. The
people who came from a background of theater come from a tradition of
discipline. You can't show up late and you must be prepared. Then came
television. It made instant stars out of everybody. I don't mean old television,
I mean this [television today].
Now these kids come on, they've been here 20 minutes, somebody writes one
article about them - new star of daytime TV! - and you can't talk to them
anymore. "I'm a star. It says so right here!" A lot of these kids come from
acting schools, a lot of them don't. A lot of them can barely walk and talk at
the same time, but they are on TV and they're making $50,000 to $80,000 a year
to start. "No director is going to tell me what to do. If I want to fool around
and talk during a scene, I will!" They are rude, they are crass and they are
I am appalled at how people treat directors, how they talk back to them.
Granted, I come from a very old-fashionied home where I was taught never to
address an adult by his first name until you have been given permission to do
so. That's the way I was raised, but not everybody's raised that way. My
children are being raised that way, though. obviously, things have changed a
lot. There is no longer a craft, an art. It's just a job for a lot of these
kids. They hire the pretty ones; the network wants to see those numbers.
At the Royal Academy, the one thing they taught me from day one was
discipline. You can drop a floor lamp on the stage and I wouldn't hear it
because I was trained to focus on what I'm doing. I was trained in a whole
different kind of theater, but it's easily adaptable. There is no such thing as
soap acting. There's acting, period. It's the art of making people believe you,
of being witty, being entertaining, breaking hearts. It's about giving of
It may not be entirely their fault, but not many of the new actors are
willing to give anything of themselves. One actress on our show, for example, is
uncomfortable with any touching,
“Sometimes, when we
are doing a sensitive scene, during dress
rehearsal Erika will make a
face…she puckers her lips, crosses her eye
and looks down at her nose. It
absolutely gets to me every time.
It's worked on me for 12 years.
physical contact, kissing or displays of warmth. She always cuts these things
out of her script. Now I am sure there are reasons for this, but that's not why
she's an actress. These people don't realize that they are not playing
themselves. It is not they who are doing these things, it is their character. We
are here to portray a character, not to suit ourselves.
Nowadays they cast to type. They don't even look at guys who are not
gorgeous. A good actor can make you believe he's gorgeous. He can make you
believe anything. That's his job.
FG: If Viki should die tomorrow, what would her epitaph be?
ES: One thing
that's always been true about Victoria is that she does what she thinks is right
in every situation. Most of the time she's right; sometimes she's horribly
wrong. Her epitaph would be: "She did her best."