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Her Life to Live

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LINED UP NEATLY ON THE SHELF of a Welsh dresser in the living room of the house Erika Slezak shares with her husband, two children, three dogs and a cat are five Emmy awards collecting dust. “Look at this,” says Slezak dismissively, picking up one for examination. “Detachable nameplates for the base. This one actually has double-stick tape on it.”

Easy for her to scoff. In the passionate love affair between soap-opera fans and their divas, Slezak, 50—who has spent half her life playing newspaper magnate Victoria Lord Riley Burke Riley Buchanan Buchanan Carpenter on ABC’s One Life to Live—is the Other Woman. Year after year, at Emmy time, all eyes turn to Susan Lucci, star of ABC’s All My Children and a 16-time best actress nominee. And year after year it is Slezak who quietly takes the statue back to her nine-bedroom, Tudor-style estate on New York’s Long Island. A little too quietly for her producer Robyn Goodman, who feels that Slezak’s unprecedented fifth daytime Emmy, awarded last May, “was obscured by everyone feeling badly for Susan. I understand that, but you don’t want to neglect the person who was rewarded.”

Not that Slezak feels neglected. Fanfare is less important to her than respect (she gets plenty, even from Lucci, who calls her a “witty woman and a spectacular actress”). And right up there with respect is the allure of a steady job, a stable family life and being able to hop into the Jeep Cherokee she parks next door to ABC’s Manhattan studio in time to be home for dinner. “I hate, hate staying late,” she says. Especially now, with even more to look forward to than a cozy supper with her husband of 18 years, actor Brian Davies, and their children Michael, 16, and Amanda, 14. On Sept. 9, Slezak makes her first prime-time appearance, as private secretary Jean Roberts in the NBC-TV movie Danielle Steel’s Full Circle. “It was terrific fun,” says Slezak of last spring’s two-week shoot. “The kids thought it was cool because I had my own trailer.”

Despite the star treatment, Slezak never imagined herself as a Danielle Steel kind of gal. The second of three children of the late Vienna-born actor Walter Slezak and his homemaker wife, Johanna, Erika was born in Hollywood, moved to New York City in 1954, when her father landed a part in the Broadway musical Fanny (for which he won a best actor Tony), and was educated at a series of public and parochial schools. “I was an obnoxiously responsible kid,” says Slezak, who shunned sports, skipped eighth grade and was such a goody-two-shoes that she chaperoned dates for her older sister Ingrid, now 51, an attorney in Portland, Ore. Says Slezak with a laugh: “I was a terrible tattletale.”

But a snitch devoted to acting. Save for “about 20 minutes when I wanted to be a nun,” says Slezak, “it never occurred to me to do anything else.” After honing her skills in high school plays at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich, Conn., Slezak was accepted at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. “I wanted to be a serious actress in the worst possible way,” she says. Later, for $108 a week, she strutted her stuff in Euripides and Shakespeare for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

One role she’d just as soon forget: In 1968, at 21, she took on the real-life role of a bride. “He was a nice man,” says Slezak of her first husband, but the marriage lasted only three years. “We had totally different ambitions,” she says. She left Milwaukee in 1969, and in 1971 was in Buffalo playing Desdemona in Othello, when she got a call saying an earlier audition for OLTL had earned her a regular gig. “I had never done TV,” Slezak recalls. “God bless certain people who literally took me by the hand and led me through that first day.”

For years now it has been Slezak doing the hand-holding. When an anxious Robin Strasser took on the role of Slezak’s arch-nemesis Dorian Lord in 1979, she recalls that “Erika came quietly over and said, ‘I just want you to know you are going to be very good in this part.’ ” Says L.A. Law’s, Blair Underwood about his three-month One Life stint as an unknown in 1985: “She took me under her wing. To this day she is like a proud mother.”

If a somewhat baffled one. During their lively dinnertime conversations, Slezak goes head-to-head with her son about politics. “He is an absolute right-wing conservative,” she laughs. “I don’t know where that came from.” And she has mixed feelings about Amanda’s desire to follow in her mother’s footsteps. “Don’t do it because you think you want to be famous,” Slezak tells her daughter. “Just do it because you love to act. Then the fame doesn’t matter.”


CYNTHIA WANG in New York City