Monday, March 2, 2009 11:48 PM ET | By Scotty Gore
(SoapOperaNetwork.com) — Could Llanview survive without Viki, and “One Life to Live” without Erika Slezak?
Viki Davidon=Erika Slezak. Erika Slezak=”One Life to Live.” The words seem interchangeable. When one is thought of, the other often immediately comes to mind. Those words have become so associated with one another that it would be difficult to think of them as separate entities. For almost 38 years, “OLTL” fans have not had to concern themselves with such a terrible thought. But what if they were suddenly forced to admit the unthinkable? What if Viki suddenly faded out of existence or left Llanview in search of a new hometown? And what if Erika Slezak suddenly left “One Life to Live” and her signature role after nearly four decades? Fans of the long running daytime drama have found themselves forced to deal those very questions recently, thanks to a conspicuous rumor that refuses to die. While the rumor, which warns that a female veteran cast member will be let go because of budget cuts, has yet to be verified by “One Life to Live” or ABC Daytime, it has left many fans uneasy, fearing the worst for their beloved heroine, believing that Erika Slezak is the one facing the chopping block. Which leads us to the question of whether Llanview could survive without Viki, and “One Life to Live” without Erika Slezak.
Whether you like her or not, you have to admit that Erika Slezak has talent. No other daytime actress, past or present, can rival the six Daytime Emmy Awards Slezak has received over the years for her portrayal of Victoria Lord Davidson, and only two actors (Anthony Geary and Justin Deas) have earned as many awards. But even still, Slezak is not as readily acknowledged outside the daytime community as her “All My Children” counterpart Susan Lucci. But why is that exactly? The answer, I think is simple. Unlike Lucci, Slezak doesn’t flaunt her fame from one end of the television dial to the other. Over the years, Slezak has rarely ventured far from Llanview, having appeared in only a handful of interviews and made-for-television movies. Lucci, on the other hand, has appeared on everything from “That’s So Raven” to “Saturday Night Live,” and has even been seen hocking her wares on infomercials and the home shopping channel QVC. Those appearances have given Lucci exposure to a whole new generation of viewers outside of the traditional daytime drama fanbase.
Secondly, Erika Slezak does not ooze sex appeal the way Susan Lucci does. Although they are same age (sixty-two), Lucci comes across as more of a sexpot, and Slezak as more of a mature, distinguished motherly figure. And I think the same is true of their onscreen personas as well. Just try picturing in your mind for a moment Viki seducing a man in the same way that Erica Kane would. Freighting, isn’t it? As much as I love the character of Viki, and admire Slezak’s acting talents, even just the mere thought of it makes me nauseous. It has nothing to do with Erika Slezak’s physical appearance or age, but more so with how the character of Viki has developed over the years. Viki is just not the sexual animal that Susan Lucci, or even Slezak’s own co-star Robin Strasser, is. Instead she is more of a mother, friend, confidante, sister, and comforter.
But that’s what makes Viki, Viki. In the chaotic world of Llanview, we expect Viki to be the voice of reason-the calm, cool, level headed woman who dispenses advice and helps others see the error of their ways. In that sense she is the complete opposite of her long-time adversary Dorian Lord. It is a rivalry that spans nearly thirty-five years to before Robin Strasser was even considered for the role of Dorian, and when Nancy Pinkerton was firmly entrenched in the role. The origin of the feud can be traced back to the mid 1970s, when Dorian was fired by the Llanview Hospital board when a patient, Rachel Wilson, died while in her care (Dorian had made a mistake on the patient’s chart, due to her affair with Dr. Mark Toland). Dorian never forgave Viki for her firing from the hospital, unaware that Viki had actually cast the lone vote of dissent against firing Dorian. Bent on revenge, Dorian lured Viki’s millionaire father Victor Lord, into marrying her after becoming the old coot’s personal physician, making her Viki’s stepmother. She even went as far as hiding the truth from Victor that Tony, a young man he had been budding heads with, was really his illegitimate son. When Victor finally learned the truth about Tony and of Dorian’s betrayal, he suffered a major heart attack. Soon thereafter, Dorian kept Victor from his family and friends, where he soon died under mysterious circumstances. As a result, Dorian inherited (for a short time at least) the entire Lord estate, including Llanfair and the Banner newspaper. Thus began Viki’s hatred of Dorian. This set-up would fuel a fire of hatred, revenge, and jealousy that would last between the two women to this day, often earning them the honorary title of “OLTL’s” best couple.
Although the feud has been placed largely on the backburner in recent years, it would be hard to imagine a Llanview where Viki and Dorian didn’t trade jabs at one another, or rehash how much they despise each other. It is here where Viki shines. I like to use the following analogy to explain the Viki/Dorian feud. I’m sure everyone has seen one or two television programs over the years that have done this, so it isn’t anything new. Anyway, the character typically displays their subconscious conflicting thoughts on an issue by imaging a small angel dressed in white, playing a harp, and wearing a halo on one shoulder. On the other shoulder is the devil, dressed in red with a pitchfork, a tail, and little pointy horns. In my mind, that is Viki and Dorian. Viki is the calm voice of reason, and Dorian is the temptress. Basically, Viki represents good and Dorian represents evil. If Viki were to leave Llanview, then the balance would be upset, and Llanview would lose its rock of Gibralter.
It may seem hard to fathom someone else stepping into the role of Viki other than Erika Slezak. However, she was not the first, or even the second actress to play the character. Gillian Spencer, “All My Children’s” Daisy Cortlandt, originated the role in 1968. She left in 1970, and was replaced by Joanne Dorian (odd coincidence, don’t you think?). On March 17, 1971, Slezak became the third actress to become Viki. However, she wasn’t the last. In the years that would follow a handful of other actresses would briefly take over the role for flashbacks, body doubles, and Slezak’s two maternity leaves. Even Roger Howarth, stepped into Viki’s shoes in a hilariously funny ‘Trading Places ‘ episode in 2001. But none of the other actresses who have portrayed Viki during the last forty years have left a mark on “OLTL” the way Erika Slezak obliviously has.
Through multiple personalities, breast cancer, widowhood, discovering lost children, a heart transplant, and a stroke (just to name a few), viewers have watched Viki’s life intimately for four decades. It seems as if there is nothing that the town matriarch has not endured or been a part of over the years. Publisher of the Banner, Mayor of Llanview, Co-Chair of the Go Red Ball, Dean of Llanview University, spokeswoman for heart disease…. Viki has long been involved in many community and charitable organizations. In many ways, she is a part of Llanview. There is no one in the fictitious Philadelphia suburb that has not been touched in one way or another by Victoria Lord Davidson.
Whether it be by blood or friendship, all of Llanview is connected to Viki in one way or another. From her children Jessica, Natalie, Kevin, and Joey, to her adversary Dorian and best friend David, to her former in-laws the Buchanans and her siblings Todd and Tina, it truly is Viki’s “Life to Live”–with everyone else seemingly revolving around her. Even though the soap’s focus has largely shifted away from Viki in recent years, she still remains an integral part of the show. As recently as 2007, she was involved in a major storyline where Viki left Llanview for Paris, Texas to “find herself.” However, while it could be claimed that show simply used Viki to introduce several new characters to the canvas (which is somewhat true), it also significantly increased Slezak’s airtime, and gave Viki her first serious love interest since the death of her most recent husband Ben Davidson. Granted both Viki and boyfriend Charlie Banks have faded somewhat from public view following their sweet, down-to-earth romantic rendezvous in the Lone Star State; however, Viki is always there to care for and help her children whenever needed. They need Viki and she needs them. Could imagine what Llanview would be like if Jessica, Natalie, and Todd didn’t have Viki’s sound advice and words of reassurance to guide them? I know I can’t.
For those who still don’t believe that Viki and Erika Slezak are essential to Llanview and “One Life to Live,” here is some food for thought. In 2008, ABC paraded Slezak around the media circuit promoting “One Life to Live’s” 40th anniversary…. from a panel discussion at the Pauley Center, to stopping by “The View,” to attending the final Super Soap Weekend, the alphabet network made full use of the star power of one of their long-running daytime actors. Furthermore, one of the soap’s most memorable storylines involving Viki was re-recreated for “OLTL’s” 40th anniversary tribute, taking Viki back to heaven for a second time. The sudser even broke the fourth wall at the end of the episode with Slezak (appearing as herself) and “OLTL” creator Agnes Nixon personally thanking viewers for their loyalty to “One Life to Live” for the past forty years. And who could forget Slezak’s comments concerning then “OLTL” Head Writer Dena Higley in a 2006 edition of her official fan club newsletter? Her vocal disdain for Higley’s inept writing capabilities ultimately led to her firing, and Ron Carlivati’s promotion as the show’s top scribe. How many other soap stars do you think have that kind of power? None that I’m aware of. Unlike some of her fellow daytime actors, when Slezak speaks people listen. It’s not everyday that Erika Slezak voices her thoughts and opinions on how the show she has helped to carry all these years, which makes her words even more powerful when she does choose to speak. And I admire her for that.
But let’s face facts…soaps are not what they used to be. The daytime genre, as a whole, is dying. The popularity of the soap opera has been steadily declining for decades. And the push these days is toward an increasingly younger audience. Gone are the days when storylines revolved solely around mature, veteran cast members with teenagers and young adults as merely supporting characters. Even so, characters such as Viki have still managed to carve out a niche in Llanview. While not featured prominently so far in 2009, Viki has still been seen regularly, appearing in nearly half of the episodes so far this year.
We’ll probably never again see Slezak in involved in another major storyline like the one she was a part of in 1995, but that’s not to say Viki won’t have any stories to call her own in the future. I use the 1995 example because, in my mind, it is a classic example of Erika Slezak’s superb acting skills and of Viki’s importance to the canvas. It was that particular storyline that amazed my then fourteen year old mind the most. In a time before the widespread availability of the Internet and message boards, and at a time when I had no job and couldn’t afford the newsstand soap magazines, I had no idea of what was coming next. I literally sat on the edge of my seat each and every day filled with both horror and astonishment as Viki’s mind snapped, and developed into six separate and distinct alternate personalities. Normally, I am not a fan of a show re-writing its own history (i.e., Victor Lord’s 2003 return from the dead). However, in this one instance I can make an exception. Turning Victor Lord into a creepy old sex pervert was pure gold. Now, if I had been born ten years earlier, and grew up watching Victor Lord back in the early days of “OLTL,” I may have a different opinion of the character. But growing up on the “OLTL” of the late ’80s and ’90s, I think the writers made a smart move by making Victor a dirty old man. My reasoning is the fact that it helped explain Viki’s DID (which, by the way, first appeared in 1968), and that it really helped define the character of Viki. In addition it has provided storyline possibilities that continue to exist nearly fifteen years later.
To say that Viki’s 1995 DID storyline, in which her altars kidnapped Dorian, threatened her family, and confessed to killing her father, wowed me is an understatement. Often times I find myself watching clips of those now infamous episodes on Youtube, and think of what “One Life to Live” can and could be. It also makes me think of just how dismal Llanview would be without Viki. She is so much a part of everyone and everything. She is our last direct connection to the past and a time when characters like Carla Gray, Meredith Lord, Joe Riley, and Steve Burke called Llanview home. And she is our last link to Agnes Nixon and her original vision for a soap she at first titled “Between Heaven and Hell.” Perhaps that is why we are so endeared to Viki and to Erika Slezak. There is a reason why her picture has closed all versions of “OLTL’s” opening sequences for the past fifteen years. It’s no accident that the character of Viki has endured for more than forty years.
So, to answer the question, I think that Llanview could survive without Viki (and “One Life to Live” without Erika Slezak), but her departure would leave a huge hole on the canvas that could never be filled. Think of it as a family which has lost beloved grandparent, or as a person who has lost a limb…. life still goes on, but it is never the same. They find a way to survive, but their lives are forever changed. But what has been lost is never forgotten; but lives on in memories. Such would be the future of “One Life to Live” without its matriarch. It would be fine for a while, but would eventually be like grapes withering on the vine. It just would never be the same again.
Fortunately however, I honestly doubt that we will have to concern ourselves with a Viki-less Llanview anytime soon. In my personal opinion, I think the rumor is just that-a rumor. I have yet to see a grain of truth in it. Of course, I could be wrong, but I just don’t see Erika Sleazk retiring from “One Life to Live” anytime soon. Instead, I see her having plenty of ‘Life’ left to live in Llanview.
Well, that concludes this edition of the column. I hope that somewhere in all my ramblings and jumbled thoughts, I have made my point. No matter how well mapped out my thoughts and ideas seem to be in my mind, it always seems difficult to properly express them in written form; but hopefully you got the jest of what I was talking about. As always, I welcome your feedback on this and other “One Life to Live” related issues. I invite you to join me again on March 15th for another installment of ‘My View of Llanview.’
And until next time remember, we only have “One Life to Live”…