Liz Smith: Soap Queen Erika Slezak Ends One “Life” To Live Another

Soap queen Erika Slezak

And more from our Liz: Britney shops … Chivalry is sexist? … and who’s that girl with the Bette Davis eyes?

“ERIKA, this is a terrible business. Unstable, full of rejection, over and over — you are too tall, too short, not pretty enough, too pretty. Too old, too young. I’m warning you.”

That’s what Erika Slezak’s father, the esteemed character actor Walter Slezak, told her when she announced she wanted to be an actress. Miss Slezak began in rep, but in 1968 took a role on a new TV soap opera, titled “One Life to Live.” (The show would break ground by its subject matter. It launched careers such as those of Tommy Lee Jones and Judith Light.)

Erika says today, “Well, I appreciated my father’s warning, but look how it ended up for me. In my entire life I’ve been unemployed six weeks. And for the last 40something years I’ve had one job, made a nice bundle of money. It’s over now, but I’d be a fool to complain.”

Miss Slezak’s show will come to an end soon, along with another classic soap, “All My Children.” Erika has played the role of Victoria Lord, the upper class matriarch of the Lord family of Lanville. She has been through a lot! Multiple marriages, multiple personalities, problem kids and the constant battle with her nemesis on “OLTL” Dorian Cramer, played by Robin Strasser. The Lord/Kramer chemistry has always been volatile. (Oy, the history between the characters!) But personally they adore each other. “We just did our goodbye scenes and I sobbed like a baby. I can’t believe I won’t have the joy of that magnificent talent to play against every day,” Erika told me.

* * *

I ASKED Erika what it is like to invest almost her entire professional life in playing one character. She said, “You know, nobody has ever asked me that before!” The actress says: “I know Viki very well. She is so familiar to me. The minute I get to the soundstage, I go into Viki mode. She’s not like me at all, but I love her. She’s a wonderful, flawed woman, who always makes a huge effort to do and be better, sometimes to the pain of friends and family. To do this sort of work — soap work — requires extreme focus and concentration.

“My father played a role on the show for three days. After the first day was over he said, ‘This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life!’ I said ‘Really? Why?’ He said ‘There are no rehearsals! They just throw you out there!’”

Erika says she doesn’t yet know how all the storylines will be wrapped up. “I hope it ends cleanly, I hope it’s all neatly wrapped.”

Will she continue acting? The very lively Erika laughed and said, “The first thing I did when I knew the show was ending was call my agent. I said, ‘Okay, get going!’ I’d love to go back to the theater. TV movies. Feature films. My kids are grown, and my husband is very supportive. He said, ‘We can go to Hollywood for a while if you think you need that.’ Anyway, I’d go mad staying home.”

Is she taking any souvenirs? Erika let out a big laugh. “Actually, when I walked into the Lord library set the other day, I thought ‘Oh, this is where I did my very first scene. And I saw the big overstuffed chairs and thought, ‘I like those!’

“But I don’t know if ABC would let me have them. Of course, I could go into my alter personality, Niki Smith, and just take what I want, as she would!”

Erika Slezak. She ain’t Victoria Lord anymore. But she’s not giving up the biz. Far from it. After all, she only has one life to live.

* * *

SPOTTED at the Tommy Hilfiger store in West Hollywood, the other day. A radiant Britney Spears, shopping with her two little boys. Britney, accompanied by her father, Jamie, bought a lot for herself. Well, with her “Femme Fatale” tour upcoming, she needs a going-out wardrobe, as opposed to the three-beads-and-a-prayer get-ups she wears onstage. Among other goodies, she picked up several smart blazers. Her boys sat, very well-behaved, happily laughing and playing games.

Several years ago, I thought I might never write such a positive, prosaic item about Britney. I’m so glad I’ve had the opportunity. Recoveries are possible and so are second acts. When one is in the midst of scandal and the press feeding frenzy, it doesn’t seem possible. But it happens, time and again.

* * *

WHEN Sir Walter Raleigh supposedly doffed his cloak and placed it over a puddle of mud, to protect the silk-clad toosties of his sovereign, Queen Elizabeth I, he (and she) thought he was being chivalrous — not to mention toadying. But some feminists today claim that such acts of chivalry are just “benevolent sexism.” They say “helping” a woman merely reinforces the idea that women cannot cope without a man’s assistance. So, don’t open doors, give up your seat on the bus or subway. Don’t offer to help a woman choose a computer or drive her on an especially long, grueling journey.

Also, showing too much affection, or saying you can’t live without a woman, might also be “sexist.” (The latter, depending on the intensity might be more stalkerish than sexist.)  Oh, and don’t offer to carry heavy bags, either, you little sexist pig. Actually, I call all of this “manners.” And I am all for manners.

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ENDTHOUGHT: I opened up the Thursday Arts section of the New York Times and was enchanted by a color portrait by Rubens (the accompanying story was about new art being displayed at London’s National Gallery.) What struck me about the painting of one Susanna Lunden, was that she is a dead ringer for the young Bette Davis — the mouth, the shape of the face, and most strikingly, huge “Bette Davis” eyes. (Although Susanna’s orbs appear to be brown, rather than Bette’s vivid blue.) The picture stopped me in my tracks.

I’d venture if Miss Davis had ever seen the portrait she would have somehow invented a linkage, history and eventually made a movie, starring herself as Miss Susanna Lunden. The girl in the painting looks so innocent Bette probably would have insisted she be a killer in the movie.

5 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Richard Bassett says:

    Of course I know of the Susanna Lunden painting that you speak about, Liz, regarding the resemblance of Bette Davis…and I see what you see. But upon first impression, I see a very naive woman…untouched by life, which is hard to transpose onto Bette Davis’s life. Perhaps a face more sassy may work. Obviously, she would be playing a role for the painting, because the real Bette Davis was just one of the guys whose idea of class was drinking whiskey instead of beer. She was so ahead of her time in the 1930’s/ 40’s…that she whizzed right by us, as is what Bette Davis does.
    The eternal Vicki Lord (Erika Slezak) was on my second favorite soap “One Life to Live” since 1971. I believe that she took the role from Gillian Spencer. “One Life to Life” debuted in 1968. It was Vicki’s life and persona that kept me glued to her and the show (unlike ‘All My Children’ which the ensemble caught my eye, oh, and my favorite). But I was with Vicki since day one. After school, on vacations, in between jobs, taped…TiVo…you name it. She was the winner of the Best Actress Emmy six times in thirty eight years, and at one point took her name of out the running. She thought the award should have a chance at being given to others. Truly, her dual personality disorder gave her such range on the show. No wonder she won the Emmy over and over again. But it was more than that. She was a millionaire who didn’t act like one. She could relate to the common people. As the character, her moral compass never strayed (despite eight marriages)…but she was widowed a few times, and married to the same man twice, a few times. She was hardly ever out of a major story line (like they did with Susan Lucci towards the end of All My Children) and Vicki fell in love at 60, the same way she did at 20. Sometimes the storylines repeated themselves (how could they not!) but it was Vicki’s ethical character that always made her worth watching. She had been paralyzed, suffered a stroke, heart aneurism, a brain aneurism, breast cancer, a heart attack, a heart transplant (and they were the only ones that I can remember!!) “One Life to Live” wasn’t always your typical soap. Once Vicki went to Heaven to see all her past loved ones. She was transported to the 1880’s (I forget how THAT happened)…and they found a secret city “Eternia” existing within one of their nearby mountains. Then, a trip to 1968 (for some reason). These storylines lasted for months and I hated them. If an alien from another planet arrived in Landview, then that would be have been it for me. I wouldn’t watch a soap sci-fi show. I did plenty of that at the movies. I would have watched the spooky soap, “Dark Shadows” but it was cancelled when I was in my early teens. Character development kept me glued to ‘One Life to Live’ opposed to storyline, as on ‘All my Children”. And Vicki’s feud with Dorian Lord lasted for decades, but I can’t now remember ‘why it started’ or ‘the purpose of each storyline’. At the end, these feuds were injected with a lot of humor. The truth is…they really were running out of ideas to keep the show alive (like ‘All My Children’) I mean, after 43 years? Come on? Both Vicki and Dorian were approaching 70 in real life and all of the romantic storylines (meant for 25 year olds) would look ridiculous. At one point Vicki had a twenty something year old grandson, most likely from a forty something year old son, meaning Vicki was playing 60 something…about ten years ago. They quickly killed off the grandson, and gave Vicki (Erika) generic romantic story lines. You could tell (like Susan Lucci) that they were putting thousands of dollars aiming to keep their looks younger, but you can only do that for so long. At 70; that certainly wouldn’t have brought in younger viewers. One lady decades ago was in a doctor’s waiting room with me and saw Erika on TV and said, “Is she STILL on that show?” And this was twenty years ago. I don’t know if they’ll go out with a bang but change is inevitable. So many characters stayed on the shows for so long, they died in real life. This was especially true on ‘All My Children’. Now, it is the end…and Erika Slezak looks tired. Her 8th marriage is ending as her alcoholic husband (who just learned his son wasn’t his real son. His real son was murdered last year) is guilty of having an affair with a sixty something woman who tried to break up one of her past marriages. Come on, give it a break already.

  2. avatar Mr. Wow says:

    Ah, I’m going to miss “One Life to Live.”   I have not had the opportunity to keep up on it much in recent years–I do know Viki’s daughter has a similiar split personality issue–but it was always there, and a fond reminder of my childhood, adolesence and even young adulthood when I still kept tract. 

    “All my Children?”  Meh.  Never my fave.  I liked “GH” way, way back in the day.  I think it used to be “Dark Shadows,” “GH” and then “OLTL.” 

    I had a few years with “Ryan’s Hope,” too.

    • avatar Richard Bassett says:

      ‘GH’…my sister watched it in the 1960’s when all of the original characters had major story line. In those days, every bit of action took place at that nurse’s station. I watched for a few years, never steadily. The day never changed. Now, forever, the storyline revolves around Sonny (who recently announced he has about two more years of Sonny in him). Sonny is leader of the mob, but I remember him from “All My Children” when he portrayed a struggling actor. He and another co-star had some comedy plots to play out. Now, even watching it a few times…I can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys. I think that they switch back and forth. It is more like a “Law and Order” than a heartwarming soap. One interesting fact is Sonny (played by Maurice Benard) recently had a bipolar storyline…and in real life, Bernard is bipolar. Great awareness education. I haven’t seen any direct BP story lines about that as of yet. GH, like them all, is next to go. “Ryan’s Hope”, the Irish show was a bit too ethnic but to tell you the truth, it was so long ago that I cannot remember much about it, except it was on and off quickly.
      I am a frustrated soap writter. I wish I started out doing that thirty years ago. You have an endless amount of time developing a character, and…in my living room…I am always saying “No, this should happen” “No, it’s too early for that” “They have to find another character” “This story line is ridiculous. Who could ever follow it?”
      The only criticism
      I have on “One Life to Live”, is having Vicki and Jess’s alters (dual diagnose personality) emerge as an ‘out’ for a storyline. Just throw their alters into the mess and, presto, another story line is developed and their transformation with the mirror conversations dialogs aren’t real. They define these alter characters a little too conveniently well rounded instead of the unstable daily confused patients that they sometimes are. Their story lines are a cop-out when they can’t think of anything else to use. Vicki/Nicki has lasted for decades. Oh, and I recently found out that if you portray twins on a single show (two characters)…you get two paychecks!!! Financially, it is a gold mine. I remember when Vicki had eight alters. I wonder what THAT check looked like.

  3. avatar Count Snarkula says:

    The Count will always open car doors for ladies, stand when they enter the room, pull out the chair, wait for them to enter/exit the elevator, etc. The Count has no choice. The Count had a very fabulous, but very exacting Mother. As she would later tell him, “The difference between Jewish and Southern Mothers is: A Jewish Mother tells her son “you can”…A Southern Mother tells her son “you will”. Alas, forever doomed to live the life of a gentleman. Well, someone has to do it.

    • avatar Obediah Fults says:

      According to Miss Manners (as I recall), the person nearest the door should exit an elevator first. In that situation, time is of the essence and it would be ridiculous for so-called “gentlemen” to scrunch together in a crowded elevator car in an attempt to clear a path for a female who was standing in the back of the car. Just get out of the #$%& elevator and let everyone else do the same. If you were blocking my exit, you’d get an earful! Genitals have nothing to do with it.