Soap Opera Digest 1996
By: Jason Bonderoff
On the Eve of Her Silver Anniversary, Four Time Emmy Winner
Erika Slezak Remembers Her Nightmare First Day
"I think of quitting
once a week," declares Erika Slezak on the eve of her 25th anniversary as One
Life to Live's personality-plus heroine, Victoria Lord Burke Reilly Buchanan
Carpenter. Not that she's bored with the job (gosh no!) or disenchanted with
acting. Far from it. It's just that even a four-time Emmy-winner gets the very
human urge to go AWOL occasionally. "When I'm tired and it's 5 in the morning, I
wake up and think, 'I don't want to get up today," she laughs. "It's snowing.
It's freezing cold outside. I think I'll quit."
These days, that impulse only lasts about as long as it takes to warm up her
car and head for the expressway. But back on March 17, 1971, when the chance to
do OLTL came along, she nearly ran in the other direction. A graduate of
London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, the under-25 actress was more at home
with Chekhov and Noel Coward than split personalities. If anything, she was sure
she'd blown her audition.
"I did my scene with Bernie Grant, who was playing [Steve Burke]," she
recalls. "When I finished, I had this sea of stone faces looking at me. [Casting
Director] Joan D'Incecco kind of whispered with a half smile, 'Thank you very
much. We'll let you know.' I thought, 'Well, I royally screwed that one up.' I
think Bernie felt sorry for me, because as we left, he asked, 'Would you like to
get a cup of coffee?' I said, "That's very nice, but no, thank you.' He was
probably relieved. He was just trying to be polite to this young kid.
"I went to my agent's office, thinking 'Well, didn't get that job.' The phone
rang, and my agent had a one-sided conversation. He kept going, 'Okay, uh-huh.'
He hung up and [told me], 'By the way, that was them.' I went, 'What do you mean
that was them?' He said, 'It was One Life to Live. They want you to start
"In that one little sentence, it was like a lifetime took place. I thought,
'Oh, great! I have a job!' My mind flashed ahead to, 'I wonder when I'll start.
Probably in April. I'll have time to get an apartment. I can probably even watch
shooting [to familiarize myself with the show].' Then I heard him say, 'You
start tomorrow.' This fantasy went clunk. I went, 'Tomorrow! I've never done
television.' I'd only done plays, where you had four weeks to learn a script, so
I went berserk. 'Oh, my God, how am I going to learn it?' I ran to the studio,
picked up the script, went home and - except for calling my mother and father to
tell them the news - didn't think about anything else. I memorized that script
backwards, forwards, upside-down."
"The next morning, David Pressman [the director] introduced me. It seems I
was the fourth Viki! Nobody knew Victoria had been recast again, because the
girl who had been playing her was fired on Tuesday afternoon after they hired
me. They called her in at the end of the day and said, 'Thank you very much, but
good-bye.' I don't know why. I never asked, but as I understand it, they were
beginning a new story, the romance with Steve, and they were not terribly happy
"The first Viki never made it on the air. She did promos and then was fired.
Gillian Spencer played Viki for two years, and when she left [voluntarily], they
hired this other actress, who only lasted three or four months. I didn't know
this. I had no idea what was going on. People walked in and went, 'Oh, hello.
Who are you?' I said, 'I'm playing Victoria.' They said, 'You are? What happened
to so-and-so?' But people were incredibly nice, especially Ernie Graves and Lynn
Benesch, who played my father and my sister, Meredith. Nat Polen, who played
Jim, literally took me by the hand and walked me through the day. The stage
manager and hairdresser took good care of me, too. They kept asking, 'So how
many other shows have you done?' I went, 'Uh, none.' They said, 'Well, how come
you're so calm?' I said, 'It's acting.' I was a basket case. But I knew I had to
make it work, so I somehow got through the day.
"My first scene was in the Lord foyer. The doorbell rang. I opened the door
for Meredith, then went into the library. The costume designer, Hazel Roy, had
dressed [me] in an elegant suit. Before I went on, Hazel tucked a penny in my
pocket. She said, 'This is for good luck.' I've never forgotten it, because that
was the luckiest penny I've ever had.
Does “Woodsy Owe Her
“Erika Slezak got me cast,” reveals Robert S. Woods who's been her
friend and co-star since 1979. “I screen-tested with her, and she went to bat
for me with the producers. She told then, 'He's the one I like!' “Slezak
concurs: “I liked him from the minute I set eyes on him. I said, 'This guy has
charm, he has humor, he has hat impish, boyish quality and he can act. What else
are you looking for, people?”
Although Woods was brought on as a potential love interest for Slezak, the
story was dropped (due to her real life pregnancy). Today, the Emmy pros are
pals who trade tips on everything from station wagons to wallpaper. Has Woods
borrowed anything from Slezak? “Everybody can borrow her work ethic,” he smiles.
The Secret of Viki's Success: "Most rich characters stay at their end of
town, but Viki never has. She reaches across class and racial barriers."
True Grit: "There are days when the material is boring beyond belief because
we're just standing around somebody else's party. But that's what they pay us
Favorite Story: "I loved playing Miss Ginny in the Old West."
Why Viki and Dorian Shouldn't Be Romantic Rivals: "I don't think the same guy
would go for both women."
Personal Mantra: "This isn't just a job. Try to make it art everyday."