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Erika Slezak Library

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 me."

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 too."

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.

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