Erika Slezak Interview: 'One Life to Live' Star Speaks Out on Prospect Park and Series Finale
Written by Melissa Parker, Posted in Interviews Actors
Emmy-winning actor Erika Slezak is best known for her 40-year role as Victoria Lord on the ABC daytime drama One Life to Live. Slezak has taken home six (1984, 1986, 1992, 1995, 1996, and 2005) Outstanding Lead Actress Daytime Emmy Awards for her performance (tying Justin Deas and Anthony Geary for most wins).
The 65-year-old Hollywood, California native is the daughter of Tony award-winning Austrian actor Walter Slezak and Johanna “Kaasi” Van Rijn, and the granddaughter of opera tenor Leo Slezak. She is married to Brian Davies and the mother of two children, Michael (born 1980) and Amanda (born 1981).
"I’m not too pleased with ABC. ABC has let so many people down by cancelling these two shows. It’s all about money."
On April 14, 2011, ABC announced that it had cancelled One Life to Live, and on July 7, 2011, production company Prospect Park announced that it would continue the show as a web series after its run on ABC, but suspended the project in late November due to numerous complications.
One Life to Live is scheduled to air its final episode on January 13, 2012.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Erika, I’m one of those fans that just hated to hear the news that All My Children and One Life to Live had been cancelled.
Erika Slezak: Yeah, join the crowd.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What is your opinion about how Prospect Park has handled things so far?
Erika Slezak: I think they had all good intentions. I think they really wanted this to work. But, and how do I phrase this, they’re Hollywood people. In Hollywood, things are done quite differently. You get your actors, your script, director and producer together, and then you get the money. In daytime, you have to have all the money up front (laughs). I think that was their difficulty.
They really did not have any idea of the scope of the work that is required to put a daytime show on. But, I think that their intentions were wonderful, and I was so excited when they said they wanted to do this because I thought, “This would be wonderful to open up a whole new medium for original programming.” It has worked for so many people and has been entertainment for so many people.
When I started on One Life to Live, we had four channels – ABC, NBC, CBS, and Channel 13, and then FOX came along. All of a sudden, cable came along, and now the choices are so enormous that to add the Internet to that makes it even better. So, I think their intentions were really good, and I’m very sorry it didn’t work because the loss of jobs is just horrendous.
I’m not too pleased with ABC. ABC has let so many people down by cancelling these two shows. It’s all about money. I understand that. But, how much money are they going to make with The Chew and The Revolution? I don’t know if anybody is watching The Chew. The problem is they’re all trying to be television personalities. They scream and laugh and they talk over each other, and it makes it impossible to watch. I’ve said this to one of their producers. I asked, “Can’t they just speak one at a time?” He said, “No, no, no, they can’t do that. They have to show enthusiasm.” But, you can’t understand them and you can’t hear them.
The reason that ABC … when I spoke to Brian Frons, he said, “People don’t want entertainment anymore. They want information.” I disagree with that. I think there’s plenty of information out there to be gotten. If you want it, you can find it anywhere, but entertainment is something different, and there are people who have spent their lives sitting down for an hour in the middle of the afternoon when the babies were little or when they’ve just had lunch, and they’ve watched entertainment. They don’t want to watch a cooking show.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): People also feel like these characters are a part of their family.
Erika Slezak: Well, that’s true.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is Prospect Park trying to find financing overseas?
Erika Slezak: I don’t know. We were sort of kept in the dark about everything. They were all enthusiastic in the beginning and they made deals with many actors … very generous deals, I must say. We thought, “Wow, that’s great!” I mean, they obviously had money if they were going ahead and making deals. But, they did all that before they contacted the unions, before they were actually legally ready to go ahead.
Some of the actors did not want to make deals until there was a deal with the unions. It was like they left that to the end, and then it didn’t happen. I guess they lost their financing. I don’t know.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did they approach all of the actors in the beginning?
Erika Slezak: They did it in groups. There were like four or five of us in the very beginning and then the next group and the next group and the next group because they had one person doing all the negotiating. She couldn’t handle 35 people, so they were doing it in groups and pretty much getting to everybody within a few weeks.
I’m hoping they will continue to try. That’s what I’ve heard. That’s what the rumor is. But, we’re the actors. They don’t tell us anything (laughs). Frank Valentini who was our producer and was going to continue with us, has now been asked to go to General Hospital and of course, he’s going to go because that’s a great job. So, we’ve lost him and without him, it would be very hard to put this show together. Very hard.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And, unfortunately, General Hospital will probably end next year.
Erika Slezak: I know. Next year, unless Frank can work his magic and save them a ton of money. He’s brilliant and a wonderful producer because he’s a businessman and an artist. It’s hard to get that combination.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What was the atmosphere like during the last week of taping?
Erika Slezak: At that time, we thought we were going on, and it was just all questions. We didn’t know where we were going, but they were looking at studios. But, nothing had been said regarding the total ending of the show. So, in a way, I guess it was better that way because otherwise that last week would have been just desperately unhappy. It was the end of an era for the show, and then we were going to continue somewhere else in a couple of weeks or a month. We had a wonderful wrap party that Friday night and everybody was very happy, and it was terrific because we were going on.
It was the day before Thanksgiving when we heard that it was not going on. I’ve been back to the studio because we had to clean out our dressing rooms and saw many of the guys, and they’re really very upset and very unhappy. People have lost their jobs. I’ve lost my job, too, but I was there 40 ½ years, so I can’t complain. But, there are people with families and kids in college, and they need the jobs.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It is very sad.
Erika Slezak: It’s horrible. It’s horrible.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): All My Children ended in a cliffhanger.
Erika Slezak: Yes, I heard.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): They filmed an alternate ending.
Erika Slezak: They also have one for us. A lot of stories are being wrapped up, but wrapped up in the sense that, “Okay, that’s this and where do we go from here?” That would have been wonderful to go on the Internet because there were questions, but they were questions you kind of thought you knew the answers to … and, then we continue.
There were one or two things that I believe they shot duplicate endings for because I think, at that point, they weren’t even quite sure what they wanted to do. So, I’m hoping they use the correct endings now (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will old characters return and what about Dorian?
Erika Slezak: Yes, old characters will return. Robin (Strasser), unfortunately, had a lot of health issues. She had a very bad back and got very ill and was not able to come back. But, many other people did, and that was wonderful.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I think it’s great the old storyline of “Fraternity Row” has been revived. The “dream” show (that aired on December 19) was so funny.
Erika Slezak: Yes. It was very cleverly done, if I say so myself. Roxie’s fantasy was hilarious! She fell down and bumped her head and thought she was the star of “Fraternity Row.” All the actors on the show played opposite characters and she was married to Tuc.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Speaking of Tuc, how did you ever keep a straight face while working with him?
Erika Slezak: Oh, that’s really hard! Tuc is so brilliantly funny and although our writers are wonderful, he added a lot of material to that, which is just so humorous because he’s a very funny guy.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Ad libbing?
Erika Slezak: He doesn’t ad lib. You can’t really do that because the production people go crazy. What he does is he writes it, and it’s rehearsed from the beginning. Otherwise, we’d be laughing a lot more.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The scene where Viki picks up the Daisy Award was funny.
Erika Slezak: Yes. Years ago when Megan was on the show and the “Fraternity Row” storyline was playing, we had an episode where we had the “Fraternity Row” equivalent of the Emmys. It was the Daisy Awards and there was a huge show done all about the awards. Megan and another character who was sort of her rival … it was a musical. They were singing and dancing, and we all attended the Daisy Awards. Megan won.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What comes to mind when you think about memorable moments playing Victoria Lord?
Erika Slezak: You know, in 40 years, I have played so many storylines. The one thing I’m really bad at is picking things out of the air like that. I’ve enjoyed every single day. Obviously, I loved the heaven storyline because it brought back all those other actors who had left the show. I loved the multiples. I loved the Paris, Texas storyline.
The one that kind of sticks out is when I got to go to the old West because ever since I was a child, I wanted to ride in a stagecoach. I thought that would be the coolest thing on earth. And, I got to ride in a stagecoach. It wasn’t a long ride, but thank God for that because riding a stagecoach is probably the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever done in my life (laughs). There’s no padding! There are no shock absorbers! It’s just bounce, bounce, bounce on a hard bench. I got to play my great great great grandmother and wear the clothes, and we shot in Old Tuscon, which is a city that was built for the movies. It’s an old western city, and that was wonderful.
But, there are so many highlights, and it’s very hard to pick one. I guess the other thing is the people I’ve been privileged to work with. Every scene with Robin was just a jewel. I’ve loved every scene with Jerry Van Dorn and Brian Kerwin. I loved working with Phil (Carey), Clint (Ritchie), Lee Patterson, Roy Thinnes, and Mark Derwin who played Ben. Everyone was so different and we had so much fun. Have I left out a husband? Larry Pine. Yeah, I left out Larry. I loved working with him, too (laughs).
You know, they’re all grownups and were there to do a wonderful job. They love what they do and they’re happy to be there, and that was really special. I loved working with Bob Woods. He was another one that it was hard to keep a straight face around as well as Michael Storm who played Larry. I don’t think I could ever look at Michael during a scene because there was something in his face that was saying, “You can laugh now. You can laugh now.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Too funny (laughs). What was the hardest thing about playing the multiple alters, and did you have a favorite that was more fun doing than the others?
Erika Slezak: Well, Niki (Smith) was the most fun and was around from the very beginning. They never really dealt with where she came from and when Michael Malone was our head writer, they decided to delve into this. It’s very very sad and a horribly difficult illness. The biggest problem we had, as is with real people who have Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), it’s sometimes very hard to distinguish the alters because they are really facets of your own personality. We had to make sure with each of the alters (and there were seven) that if the audience tuned in on a Tuesday without having seen Monday’s episode and there was one of the alters on the air, they would know exactly which one it was. So, we had to make them very very specific.
The hardest one to make very specific was Tori because she was sort of the Joan of Arc character. She wanted revenge for the abuse. It’s a fascinating illness. It’s horribly sad, but it’s fascinating because the alters almost always stay the age they were when they were created. And, since most of it happens to children, children create alters to protect them and to deal with aspects of the abuse or whatever is going on. So, they create older characters.
Tommy was created because they thought a 14-year-old boy would be her protector and so Tommy was a 14-year-old boy. Tori was a 19-year-old girl. Niki was always an adult because she had to enjoy the sex. I think the hardest one was Tori. We had to do Victor once because, unfortunately, the victim always harbors the personality of the abuser. We did Victor only once, and that was just with the voice. The most fun was Niki because she’s that part of us that doesn’t care about anything. She doesn’t give a shit about anything. She’s just there for herself. She wanted to have fun and to be left alone. But, Tori was the hardest one to make specific.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Let’s talk about your early life. Did you want to become an actor because your father (Walter Slezak) was in show business?
Erika Slezak: From the time I can remember, yes. It’s all I ever wanted to do. And, believe me, they tried to talk me out of it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Really?
Erika Slezak: Yeah. Until I was about 12 or 13, it was just, “Oh sure, okay, fine.” Then when I was about 14, my father asked, “Are you serious about this? Do you really want to be an actor?” I said, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.” So, he took me in his little office, sat me down for about an hour and told me everything bad about this business. He said, “You have to be prepared for all the awful things that happen to actors, the rejection, humiliation, and embarrassment and receiving bad reviews if you do get a job. You have to be prepared for all of that.”
I walked out of there thinking, “I don’t care. I still want to be an actress.” My father told me that if I really wanted this, I had to be properly trained, so he and my mother investigated, and they decided there were excellent colleges in this country that had drama programs where you could get an education as well. Then, he suggested trying the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), which was sort of the crème de la crème at the time, and I guess it still is. It’s just an awesome school.
I applied to various colleges and also applied to RADA, and I was accepted there. That was kind of the difficult part. Do I now go to college, or do I go there? This was in 1963 where it wasn’t imperative that everyone goes to college. Now, it really is. But, my father and mother and I sat down, and I said, “I really want to do this.” My father said, “Then go to RADA.” I did, and it was the most brilliant decision I’ve ever made.
While saying that, had I to do it over again, I would have gone to college first and then applied to RADA. But, once you apply to RADA and you’re accepted, if you say “no,” they’re not going to let you in again. So, I really didn’t have the choice back then. But, I would’ve gone to college first because I think I missed those four years of just growing up.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I saw a photo of your father as the Clock King in the campy 1960s Batman TV show.
Erika Slezak: Oh yeah (laughs). My father was very well known. Actually, when they asked him to do Batman, he watched the show and called them. He said, “Aren’t you all over acting a bit?” They said, “No, that’s what we do.” He went there and started to do his performance and the director came to him. My father said, “It’s too much, right?” The director said, “No … more! You’ve got to do much more!” It was a fun show.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were your siblings ever interested in acting?
Erika Slezak: Never! My brother, at one point, wanted to be a director, but he never wanted to do the work for it. So, he became a pilot instead and flew small planes. He’s retired now and lives outside of Seattle, Washington. My sister never had any interest in acting. She became a lawyer and is sharp as a tack.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Erika, if Prospect Park falls through, would you consider joining another soap?
Erika Slezak: Yes! Yes, I would. I’ve worked for so long and am so used to it, and I love it so much that I’ve said I’m not retiring voluntarily. I will work anywhere I can. I’ve sat down with my agent and said, “I would like to do a play. I’d like to do a TV show. I’d like to do a movie. I’d like to do anything that anyone would hire me for.” We’ll see what happens. The problem is I’ve been identified with one character for so long that it would have to be a very different kind of character. But, I’ll do anything.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): After Prospect Park’s announcement in November, several actors moved to Los Angeles and some have moved on to other projects. Even if Prospect Park could come up with the money now, I’m wondering if it would be too late.
Erika Slezak: Oh, I think it’s too late to revive One Life. But, I said that up front. Without Frank, it would be hopeless because Frank was the heart and soul of that show. I think without him, it would be impossible to put it together unless he becomes available again. But, many have moved on, so I think it’s pretty much dead.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What will you miss most about One Life to Live?
Erika Slezak: That’s my other family, you know? I have so many friends there. I had to increase my Christmas card list this year because I don’t want to say goodbye to any of them.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The View will air an hour-long special episode to pay tribute to the show on January 13. Do you know what actors, beside yourself, will appear?
Erika Slezak: I do not know. I believe there will be many cast members. I’m not sure that everybody will be there because not everybody is available. As you said, people have moved to California. But, I’m going to be one of the co-hosts. I told them as long as we don’t have to discuss politics, I’d love to do it. I hate it when they fight on that show.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And scream and yell over each other?
Erika Slezak: Yeah. I hate that. But, it will be fun.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You won six Daytime Emmy Awards in the category of Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, tying the record for most wins by an actor (shared with Justin Deas and Anthony Geary). Did the excitement wane some after the third or fourth win?
Erika Slezak: No. It was more exciting each time. The last one when there were eight women nominated was stunning. I still walk past them and can’t believe that they’re mine. They’re beautiful, and I really am so privileged and honored to have them because you are awarded them by your peers.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was Susan Lucci’s “streak” ever in the back of your mind?
Erika Slezak: No. We were nominated together a bunch of times. She was always very gracious and finally she won. Thank God. She has been the face of daytime for a really long time and has done more for this genre than anyone. Susan is a delightful lady, very quick, bright, funny, and a very good actress. She works her tail off and that’s wonderful. She has done so much for daytime.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have also done so very much for the daytime genre, and I’m sure your fans thank you for many hours of entertainment. I wish you continued success in whatever you do now.
Erika Slezak: Well, thank you very much, and thank you for the lovely conversation.
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