A staple of American stage, screen, and television for over 30 years, Victor Slezak hails from Youngstown, Ohio, a city known for its steel industry and the fact that vaudevillians who played for those steel workers, had some advice for their fellow thespians, “If you can make ‘em laugh in Youngstown, you can make ‘em laugh anywhere.”
The Franciscan nuns at Saint Stanislaus Grade School taught in the Jesuit mode, placing heavy weight on the correct use of language and oratory skill. Theatre was used as a teaching tool. At an early age Victor’s acting in, directing, and writing plays stemming from the Bible became a normal part of his daily routine and education. His talent and efforts gained recognition when he was asked to join a select handful of students in reading the Book of Genesis aloud to their church congregation. “ Something happened while I was in the pulpit. The quiet listening of the congregation and the communion between them and myself left it’s mark on me.”
Toward the end of high school Victor’s guidance counselor pulled him out of class to announce good news: he’d been awarded a scholarship to study acting at Ohio State. Victor turned it down. The summer before, Victor had spent 10 week’s as an apprentice at the Lakewood Musical Playhouse. “I spent an amazing summer with incredibly talented people. They were making 75 dollars a week. I was making nothing and working harder than I ever had before. That’s when I decided to never become an actor.”
From an early age he spent his free time making drawings in pencil and ink. He couldn’t see himself pursuing acting as a career after seeing those amazing performers drawing there 75 dollar a week pay check and no job after the ten weeks so, at the ripe old age of 17, he moved to New York City to become a visual artist.
He was on the fast track to become an advertising art director when a friend who worked as a scenic designer from that summer of stock called and asked Victor if he’d like to paint scenery for the venerable Chautauqua Opera Company in western New York state. Victor arranged for a brief leave of absence from the advertising firm.
“It had been years since I’d been in a theater,” he recalls. “When I walked into the Opera house at Chautauqua, something happened to me. I felt I was home.”
Victor never went back to the ad firm. When his work at Chautauqua ended, he landed a job stage managing variety acts – a country/western band, a juggler, and a magician – at the Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio, In an era before Amazon or Barnes and Noble existed, he hunted for books on acting..
“Lee Strasberg. Michael Chekov. Richard Boleslavsky. I read any book on acting I could get my hands on,” Victor recalls. “But the one that really spoke to me was Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting.” Victor’s first introduction to Uta Hagen was in his Speech and Drama class where he heard a recording of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff.” “The moment I heard this woman’s voice, I said to myself, “She’s telling the truth.”
He remembers placing a call from a pay phone after making his decision to study with Uta to HB Studio in New York. “I told the woman who answered that I wanted to audition for Ms. Hagen.” He laughs, “I called on the day they were arranging to see new students.”
He studied off and on with Ms. Hagen and other legendary actors, Kim Stanley and Geraldine Page, for several years. “Studying with Wynn Handman during this time as well was crucial to moving me into my professional life.”
Exceptional material and the chance to work with great artists kept Victor in New York when so many of his peers moved west to Los Angeles. Stage jobs in the city soon beckoned. Victor’s performance as Lachlen in The Hasty Heart at Mirror Repertory off-Broadway led to his being cast opposite Geraldine Page at the same venue in a Ibsen’s Ghosts, directed by Austin Pendleton.
Television jobs followed including a recurring role on ABC’s “Guiding Light”. Broadway beckoned in 1993. Victor played John Cleary in Frank Gilroy’s Any Given Day (the precursor to The Subject was Roses) alongside Sada Thompson at the Longacre Theatre, following that playing Dr. Sugar in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer at Circle in the Square with Elizabeth Ashley, JFK in Jackie: An American Life with Margaret Colin at the Belasco, Mr. Robinson in The Graduate with Kathleen Turner at the Plymouth Theatre, and John the Baptist in Salome with Al Pacino at the Barrymore Theatre.
After Uta Hagen’s death in 2004, Victor received calls from HB Studio asking him to consider teaching. Harkening to a need to give back to the school and the teacher who had nurtured him, he eventually agreed. “I went to teach my first class and found that the Studio had put me in the same room where I’d first met Uta.”
Today, he serves on the Board of the HB Playwrights Foundation, a position he’s held since 2009 and makes time each year to be a part of their CORE program. He is also a member of the Actor’s Studio and The Ensemble Studio Theater. He is known throughout the industry for the research he brings to playing roles of particular power and complexity.
Victor still approaches his roles with a painter’s eye. “My approach takes lots of patience and time, and these days time is a luxury. At the end of the process, the work should be invisible to everyone but me.”
He laughs. “The funny thing? I’ve been doing this now for over thirty years and I feel like I’m just getting started.”