This article originally appeared in the July 15, 1993 issue of the Chicago Tribune. It
is accompanied by photos of Erika Slezak (Viki), Clint Ritchie (Clint), John Loprieno (ex-Cord)
and Erin Torpey (Jessica).
One Life lives on: 25 Years for the Show that Threw Out Convention
by Marla Hart
In 1968 yippies at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago chanted, "The whole world is watching. " Sure, but
daytime audiences continued watching soap operas such as "Guiding Light, " "Edge of Night " and "Secret Storm " that
presented an image of homogenized characters concerned with hospital stays and infidelity.
A new soap, however, was evolving against the backdrop of social upheaval. "One Life to Live " premiered just weeks
before the infamous convention, and with it, much of soap convention went out the window.
It was a soulful melodrama. There was little that could be considered "white bread " about it. Stories involving Poles, Jews,
blacks and WASPs were heartbreaking, complicated with people from all walks of life mixed up in the same human stew.
Daytime, of all places, embraced the changing times.
Thursday, "One Life to Live " (1 p.m. weekdays, ABC-Ch. 7) celebrates its 25th anniversary.
From Day One, creator Agnes Nixon - a member of the soap Establishment, ironically - unleashed a torrent of multi-ethnic,
high-strung types that included the gorgeous black ingenue Carla, who passed for white much to the dismay of her mother, a
domestic; working-class Vinnie Wolek, cursing his fate in an undershirt, as his dreams of love were dashed in scene after
"I'm-not-good-enough-for-her " scene; Joe Riley, an Irish reporter who mixed his scruples with Scotch; the handsome Jewish
D.A. Dave Siegal, jaunty in a yarmulke on the high holidays; and WASP sisters Meredith and Vicky Lord, frail and tough,
respectively, deprived of a loving mother and browbeaten by a demanding, rich father.
Erika Slezak, daughter of actor Walter Slezak, auditioned for the role of Vicki Lord - poor little rich girl with a soft spot for the
big lug Joe - three years into the soap's run and after attending the Royal Academy of Arts in London and doing repertory
theater in the Midwest.
"I didn't believe it when I got the part, " she remembers. "I would think to myself, 'They didn't really mean me when they picked
me.' My first three years, I walked around scared to death. It was my very first time on television!
"It was a much more adventurous time in soap operas, " Slezak says. "There was a carefree attitude. We as actors had a lot
more freedom, although admittedly a lot of us were afraid to take such liberties. People were improvising all over the place.
Nowadays we get notes from writers and producers that say, 'We want you to say that line exactly the way it's written.' "
With three Emmy Awards as proof, Slezak has been the emotional center of the soap. As Vicki, she has been Llanview's
classiest dame: an evenhanded woman; a soft-hearted blueblood once hypnotized to forget she gave birth; a hard-headed
newswoman with cowboy in-laws and a split personality.
"I've always tried to play Vicki in a natural way. The audience can see it in a second if you're pushing it or being phony. Even if
it's subconscious, they just aren't buying it, " she insists.
"I don't force tears, " she says. "Actresses who can cry are a dime a dozen. You don't have to cry to make people sad; the
question is, 'Can you make the audience cry?' "
Of course, "OLTL " has relied on old-fashioned melodrama: split personalities, the rich stomping the poor, characters trapped
in lost cities. But early stories in particular were laden with nagging doubts about the future: drug use, identity crises and
The soap lost some steam in the ratings after its initial splash but returned to its iconoclastic roots in the mid-' 70s with actors
such as Tommy Lee Jones and Tom Berenger joining Gerald Anthony (as Marco, the pimp) and Judith Light (Karen, the
prostitute). Just to keep things off balance, the young turks hired by the soap threw out the scripts.
"There was no blueprint for any of what we were doing, " recalls Gerald Anthony, a real-life ex-hippie who joined the show in
1977 and played pimp Marco. "It was a great time in the history of soaps. "
"OLTL " tossed out questions without answers. Was marriage an institution worth saving? Should a nun surrender her politics
to the church? Can a prostitute really deny her behavior? Can a pimp be redeemed by love or disguise himself as his dead
brother? Is there anyone more wicked than Dorian Crammer?
These days "OLTL " still tackles tough issues - homophobia and frat rape - though the show has lost much of its urban edge.
"The changes in the show are mostly in the stories that are tackled, " says Slezak of the different regimes. "Agnes Nixon took
responsibility as a role model, being careful to condone or condemn certain behavior. Once, Victor Lord was a paragon of
virtue, then producer Paul Rausch said let's turn him into a dirty old man who sleeps with young women and keeps
pornography in the basement.
"I roll with the punches. It's my job to play the part, " the actress reflects. "I try to stay away from the politics. The only time I
go upstairs is if I don't feel I'm being true to Vicki. Sometimes they say, 'Tough, deal with it.' And I deal with it. Everybody's
dispensable, " she says with characteristic candor.
Fans miffed over Vicki's current extramarital affair should keep in mind that hidden personality Niki might be lurking.
Slezak agrees. "You know, once Vicki was younger; I was younger. She was confused, in awe of her father, in love, conflicted
about her sister. She's now older. She's confused. She's still in love. She still has a sister she's conflicted about - it's just a
different sister. She still has problems with her father.
"I carry a big kernel of Vicki with me through all the writers and producers. That's my job - to be true to her, " she concludes.
"The wonderful thing we can do in a box . . . on television . . . is tell the truth. Once Vicki existed in the mind of Agnes Nixon.
Now she exists in the mind of (head writer) Michael Malone. And she exists in my mind through it all. "