erika-slezak-mashup

Robert Milazzo/ABC/Courtesy of the Everett Collection, George De Sota/JPI, Ann Limongello/ABC/Courtesy of the Everett Collection, ABC/Courtesy of the Everett Collection

The then-rookie went on to set the record for most Outstanding Lead Actress Daytime Emmy wins.

Today, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Erika Slezak ever having played One Life to Live heroine Victoria Lord. But when she made her debut on March 17, 1971, she was actually the third actress to play the pivotal part. And the pressure wasn’t just on, it was piled on.

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After the show lost its original Viki — Gillian Spencer, now perhaps better known for her stint as All My Children’s Daisy Cortlandt — Joanne Dorian stepped in but didn’t quite take. So 24-year-old TV newbie Slezak was recruited to try Viki on for size. In telling her the good news, her agent also dropped a couple of bombshells on her: First, she was to start the next day, Slezak recalled for the Archive of American Television (in a video you can watch in full below). Second, “‘my client is currently playing Viki, and they never told us they were letting her go.’”

Apparently, the powers that be hadn’t told many people. When Slezak arrived for rehearsal on her first day as a Llanview resident — “nervous as all get-out,” she noted — her new castmates did what anyone would in their situation and asked who she was playing — and didn’t believe her when she said she was Viki. “Nobody had told anybody!” she marveled. “Only two people knew: Lynn Benesch and Ernie Graves, who played my sister and my father,” Meredith and Victor Lord, respectively.

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“So,” she continued, “my first day was a little weird. I had never been on television” — and on top of that… well, all this! “Somehow I got through that day.”

And the one after that. And the one after that. Ultimately, Slezak went on to become a soap icon and the record-holder for most Outstanding Lead Actress Daytime Emmy wins. (Her trophy case holds half a dozen statuettes.) As Viki, she played one highly popular romance (with Lee Patterson as Joe Riley) after another (with Clint Ritchie as Clint Buchanan) after another (with Mark Derwin as Ben Davidson). She got to bring to life one of the genre’s most legendary split-personality storylines (owing to Niki Smith & Co.). And she earned herself a legion of fans that to this day can’t believe that she won’t ever again welcome us to Llanfair.

But who knows? With All My Children set to relaunch in primetime as Pine Valley, perhaps One Life to Live will be next. In the meantime, console yourself with the below photo gallery, a collection of images of daytime’s best-ever recasts, Slezak obviously among them.