September 01, 1997 12:00 PM

LAST SEPTEMBER, AFTER 17 YEARS of playing heartless hunk Roger Thorpe on Guiding Light, actor Michael Zaslow had the kind of life-altering experience usually reserved for soap opera characters during sweeps week. In the middle of a hospital scene, Thorpe screamed, “I’m not that man anymore!” As he delivered that prescient line, Zaslow realized that he himself was changing: The smooth-talking soap star was having trouble speaking clearly. “I found a difficulty navigating the phrase,” Zaslow, 54, recalls of the slightly slurred speech that arrived without warning.

Since then the problem has gotten worse. Tests have been inconclusive, and medicine has been able to offer little relief. “Michael has an undiagnosed neurological disease we don’t have a name for,” says Dr. Franklin Klion, Zaslow’s internist. The effect, however, is clear. Zaslow slurs words and sounds nasal, in large part because his soft palate muscle, at the roof of the mouth near the throat, is too weak to direct air through his mouth for proper speech. Last April, with Zaslow’s performance affected, GL asked him to take a leave of absence, which he took as a direct dismissal. “He was a basket case,” says Zaslow’s wife, Susan Hufford, 58, a former actress turned psychotherapist with whom Zaslow is raising two adopted daughters—Marika, 14, and Helena, 11—in their Roxbury, Conn., and Manhattan homes. “I didn’t want to go,” says Zaslow, the 1994 Emmy winner for outstanding actor in a daytime series. “I bought into [GL] being a family and I have been hurt.”

So has his livelihood. The unemployed soap star no longer receives his full salary and is currently in arbitration with Procter & Gamble Productions, GL’s owner, about compensation. Zaslow says he first suggested incorporating his condition “into the character, like a stroke,” but GL executive producer Paul Rauch turned down the idea. “[Thorpe] has great strength and power,” says Rauch. “It didn’t seem characteristic for us to stop, then begin telling a story about whatever [Zaslow’s] problem was.”

That, however, sounded like a perfect idea to the producers at One Life to Live, who asked Zaslow to return as David Renaldi (a role he played from 1983 to 1986) and offered to write his disability into the show. Zaslow declined, he says, because of “unresolved contractual complications” with Procter & Gamble.

With work on hold and another actor, Dennis Parlato, subbing as Thorpe, Zaslow is focused on his illness. He has tried psychotherapy (believing stress from the 1995 death of his mother and his father’s death last month from pancreatic cancer might be a cause), acupuncture and even intravenous antibiotics in case it’s Lyme disease. So far, his only relief has come from an obturator, a retainer-like device that fastens behind the teeth and improves his speech by lifting the soft palate, preventing air from coming out of the nose.

Freedom of speech wasn’t always so problematic. Born in Inglewood, Calif., the only child of Edith and Milton, who ran a greeting card business, Zaslow dreamed of acting. After studying political science and drama at UCLA, he moved to New York City in 1967 and landed a role in the Broadway comedy There’s a Girl in My Soup. Three years later, before an audition for Fiddler on the Roof, Zaslow fell in love. “When Susan sang ‘Far From the Home I Love,’ ” he says, “I melted.” They wed five years later. In 1971, Zaslow landed the Thorpe role, which, save for a sojourn into films and other TV shows between 1980 and 1989, has been his ever since.

And, hopes Zaslow, will soon be again. His speech physiologist, Étoile LeBlanc, believes Zaslow will improve but says, “he has a long way to go.” Meantime, Mary Alice Dwyer-Dobbin, a P&G production executive, says, “Nothing would give us greater pleasure than to have him return in good health.” As Zaslow considers that prospect, his eyes grow teary. “I’m still an actor. I’m not going to have my trade taken away,” he says. “I’m on a mission to represent those with disabilities. I shall return.”

STEVEN LANG

CYNTHIA WANG in New York City

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