ABC Soaps In Depth
April 20th, 1999 Vol. 3 Issue 16
Hitting the High Notes
By: Matt Webb Mitovich
At first she was afraid, she was petrified. Words along those lines mark
the lead-in to the disco ditty "I Will Survive" as well as describe Erika
Slezak's reaction to the news that her Llanview alter ego - proper society queen
Victoria Lord Carpenter - would croon the tune in a rousing bar scene that aired
So, who had the task of telling the daytime
veteran, who has seen her character do everything from split into assorted
personalities to burrow for bullion in the underground city of Eterna, that she
was stepping up to the microphone? "Oh, it was Jill," she says with a roll of
her smiling eyes, referring to executive producer Jill Farren Phelps.
"She came to me a few months ago and said, 'You
sing, don't you?' I replied, 'No,' and Jill said, 'Oh, yes you do' and she
started to walk away."
Despite her lineage - she's the granddaughter of
world-famous operatic tenor Leo Slezak and daughter of actor and Metropolitan
Opera singer Walter Slezak and opera singer Johann Van Rign - Slezak does not
sing, so she persistently nipped at Phelps' heels as they continued down the
hallway. "I went after her," she recalls, and said, 'Hello?! Do you know what
'No' means? 'No, N-0. I don't sing. I am not a singer.' " Jill said, 'Well, I
bet you do,' and I said, 'No, I don't. What are you talking about any way?!' She
said, 'I don't know; it's just an idea we had...' "
Once Slezak learned that her choral coming-out
would take place in the context of a karaoke saloon sing-along, she gradually
warmed up to the idea. "When I found out that it was karaoke, I felt, 'Well, I
can fake that,"' the determined performer states, "as long as it's the right
"My son called me
as soon as the song was over," says Slezak.
"He was laughing
Name That Tune
With the star's hesitation now abated, there was just the matter
of choosing that perfect song, a step which Slezak tackled personally.
'Initially, they wanted me to sing some Billie Holiday blues song," she reports,
diving back into her modest mantra. "I said, 'I'm sure it would be great, but I
don't sing. I can carry a tune, and I can read music, but I am not a singer, and
you cannot sing a Billie Holiday torch song if you can't sing. That's painful.'"
Instead, Slezak opted for something, as she puts it, "light and
loud" - "I Will Survive." "Jill was at first a little nervous," the actress
reveals, "because she thought that it might read as Viki saying 'Clint is out of
the way, and I will survive.'"
Rather, the reasons behind Slezak's selection are less cerebral.
"I happened to love Priscilla, Queen Of Thee Desert," she explains, referencing
the 1994 movie about cross-dressing cross-country travelers that used the Gloria
Gaynor track as an anthem of sorts. "Also, it's a karaoke song, and it is a song
you don't have to be a singer to sing. Because it's loud, you can act it more,
and you can speak a lot of it."
With the song in place, and the anxious actress ready for her
close-up, Slezak unabashedly unleashed her rowdy rendition and got by just fine... with a little help from her friends. "Thank God, the people who were extras on the set that day were so fabulous," she effuses. 'I was trying to sneak around to them, going, 'I don't care what the director says, you've really got to help me - make a lot of noise, scream and holler, stomp and cheer."'
It also helped that the crowd was warmed up by the burly
entertainer who preceded Viki. "The big guy who sang the song before mine," she reveals, "was Jamie Howarth, our music director."
When all was said and done, the end result of the actress' efforts
suited her just fine. "It was fun,' she says, adding one tiny caveat as she cups
her cheeks in mock horror: "But oh my God, the last note was so flat!"
Humming A Few Bars
That one errant note is perhaps the only place you'll find discord
in Slezak's world these days, for this soap icon is thoroughly happy with the
state of affairs in Llanview. In fact, Viki has an affair of her own warming up
right now, as she gets closer to Ben, the doctor-turned-barkeep who has been
delighting "Blondie" as well as the show's fans. "People like it!"
Viki's portrayer proudly reports. 'The letters have been very
positive. People are saying, 'Ifs so nice to see Viki happy and smiling!' Even
my husband [actor Brian Davies], who never watches the show, said, 'I love
seeing you so adorable and flirtatious!'"
While thrilled with the feedback, Slezak is not entirely
surprised, because no one is closer to Viki and her wants than the woman who has
been playing her since 1971, netting five Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Lead
Actress along the way. "What people forget is that Viki is a very bright woman
who needs to be intellectually challenged," she declares. "In fact one letter
received said, 'I hope Viki finds another educated man, like Sloan.' As it
happens, we have now found out that Ben is educated and an intellectual equal
and God knows what else!"
And just as Viki is thrilled to have a new man in her life,
Slezak, in turn, is quite pleased with Mark Derwin, who plays the enigmatic Ben.
'He is a doll," she raves. "The best part about it is be shows up in the morning
and is so happy. It's very nice to work with someone who really wants to be
here, wants to rehearse, and likes what he's doing."
After all, says Slezak, maintaining that positive posturing is no
easy feat amidst the grueling daytime workload. "This is very hard to do under
any circumstances," she attests. "It's even harder when you're dealing with
misery all daylong. You don't need it"
Slezak and Amanda
Erika Slezak talks about her early start in acting and its effect on her as a parent.
The advisory is printed simply in the entry requirements for
London's prestigious Royal Academy Of Dramatic Art: "Entry is by audition and
interview. It is unusual for
candidates to be offered a place under the age of 18." Those stern words, in and of
themselves, speak volumes about the innate ability of Erika Slezak, who was
admitted to the 95-year-old institution at the age of 17.
The actress—whose daughter, Amanda, is now that same age – looks
back upon her brave journey to Europe thusly: "I thought my parents didn't love
me at all, which I know is not true." She starts, "or they must have trusted me
enormously to let me go off to England by myself."
It also helped the precocious coed's cause that it was a simpler
time then, and her destination was a civilized place. "I didn't go off to Casablanca," she
laughs. "I went to London, and in
the 60s, it was going through a wonderful revolution. You had the mod clothes, and it was just
a fabulous place for somebody very young to be. You could still take a taxi home in the
middle of the night – you can't do that anymore."
So, naturally, the mother of two – Amanda and Michael – hesitates
when asked if she would allow her own daughter to make a similar journey. "I mentioned that to my husband once,"
she reveals. "I said, 'Do you think
there is any way we would let Amanda go live in a foreign country by
herself?' He said, 'I wouldn't,'
and I thought, 'I wouldn't either.'
The world is too different, and London is not at all an English city
anymore. It's quite different
Even domestically, Slezak has her concerns. "Amanda has applied to New York
University, and I'm worried because the streets of New York City are not
Listening to the actress, it's touching to realize how the former
17-year-old acting prodigy has grown into a protective mother. "Wherever Amanda ends up, I'll still
worry about her."
Slezak spends all
of her free time with hubby Brian and kids Amanda and Michael
Whistle While You Work
Contented actors like Slezak and Derwin, mind you, are not the cause of the spirited atmosphere over at OLTL these days, rather, they are the effect. The champion of the cheerful vibe, maintains Slezak, is none other than boss Phelps, the same lady
who was able to woo the actress into warbling.
"Jill has set a tone around here that is very positive, by saying,
don't need negative; I need positive. I need people who want to be here.' She
has resurrected the show and put people back into the right groups where they
Slezak cites herself and Robert S. Woods (Bo) as just two Llanview
mainstays who have benefited from Phelps' changes. "Bob is on Cloud Nine," she
declares. After all, look at how wide suddenly Bo's whole life has become. It's
not just tied in with one person. He's now talking to his father, and his
nephews, and he's commissioner again, and he's got Lindsay. There is so much
"And Viki, too. I've got The Banner, I've got my kids, I've got
Jessica and the baby, I've got Ben, just so many things to OCCUPY Me. I'm very
happy! And that is credited to Jill and our writers now. It's a pleasure to come
to work, to pick up a new script and go, 'I wonder what's going to
Will Ben tell Viki
Talk About An
To fill a daytime legend of Slezak's standing with wonder,
following so much tremendous storyline, is no small feat. After all, she has
been with OLTL practically since its inception - this is someone who has seen
just about everything. Yet in the beginning, the actress reflects, storytelling
was far more restrained than the unbridled scenarios unraveling on soaps today.'
The biggest change I've seen in daytime," she opines, "is probably the freedom
that they now have to deal with any story, and that's because the world has
changed so. When I joined the show, you did not have mixed-race stories, you
never had homosexual stories... You just couldn't do them. Even religion was
touchy. You know, there was a time, in the1970s, when ALL MY CHILDREN did a
mixed-race story, and stations all over the South canceled the show. We don't
want to see that' they said. But nothing is taboo anymore.
"The other big change," she continues, "is the amount of money
they spend on shows now as compared to then. In those days, we competed with the
other two networks, and that was essentially it. Now, we're competing with
movies, cable, talk shows... so we have to spend more."
In fact, it is that same level of increased competition, the
actress says, which is playing havoc with the all-too-important ratings numbers
that executives scrutinize day in and day out. "I'm always kind of surprised,"
she candidly reveals, "when I see these 'doom and gloom' reports from the
networks saying, We've got to get these ratings back.' You know what? They'll
never come back! This is already pretty good! We've got a huge share of an
audience watching us, when you consider what they could be watching. All they
have to do is be bored for five seconds and they click the remote. There are
500channels to watch now, so we'll never match the numbers we had 10 years ago."
The Song Remains The Same
Yet despite the changes in climate and cash flow, daytime, at its
heart, is the same as it ever was, according to Slezak. "Basically, we still do
the same thing. We do it on a larger scale, with bigger sets and better
costumes, but we tell the same stories. That's what daytime is about--people and
stories. If you have good stories and interesting characters, you have a
successful show. You can even have very interesting characters and a less good
story, and people will still put up with you. But they have to be invested in
One other constant to rely upon is Slezak's presence in daytime, a
place she feels she belongs, even if she eventually is forced to break into show
tunes in The Banner press room. "I don't know what I would be if I weren't an
actress, because from the time I was probably 3years old, it never occurred to
me that I would be anything but an actress. And it is to God's credit that he
has allowed me to have a successful career, because if I didn't have one, I
don't know what I would be. I really don't"