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Erika Slezak Library

Soap Opera Digest 1996

Victoria Victorious

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 tomorrow.'

"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 with her."

"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 10%?

“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.

Just the Facts

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 for."

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."

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