The Sad Suicide of Walter Slezak

Quite recently I watched an old 1980 Love Boat episode that shocked me by containing a performance by Walter Slezak (1902-1983). Those who remember him from Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) could be forgiven for shouting “Double the watch, Captain Stubing!” at the screen. Slezak was predictably droll in his part, though the laugh track was probably doing most of his work for him. There was an undertone of sadness in his performance. He seemed weak, and was parked in a chair the whole time. As was true of so many old-timers who went on The Love Boat, this proved to be his final performance.

Those whose earliest impression of Slezak was as the stout, middle-aged Willi in Lifeboat might be interested to know that his earlier stage and screen presence was more like this:

He was a dashing young leading man in silent films in his native Austria. His father was a famous opera singer. Slezak was drafted for the film at age 21 by Michael Curtiz for his first film Sodom and Gomorrah. He acted in silents through the end of the ’20s and then came to the States where his operatic culture stood him in good stead in Broadway musicals starting with the 1931 Shubert show Meet My Sister, followed by Music in the Air (1932-33), Ode to Liberty (1934-35), May Wine (1935-36), I Married an Angel (1938-39), The Trojan Women (1941) and Little Dark House (1941).

In the ’40s he went out to Hollywood, where he often play cheerful villains with Mephistophian flair. Other pictures included The Princess and the Pirate (1944), Salome, Where She Danced (1944), Sinbad the Sailor (1947), Vincent Minnelli’s The Pirate (1948), The Inspector General (1949), The Yellow Cab Man (1950), Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion (1950), Bedtime for Bonzo (1951), People Will Talk (1951), Call Me Madam (1953), and White Witch Doctor (1953).

Missing the stage, Slezak returned to Broadway for My 3 Angels (1953-54), Fanny (1954-56, for which he won a Tony), The First Gentleman (1957), and The Gazebo (1958-59), and then appeared at the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Strauss’s Die Zigeunerbaron (1959-60). In 1962 he published a memoir entitled What Time’s the Next Swan? The title refers to an anecdote in which his father Leo Slezak was onstage in an opera and supposed to step onto a mechanical swan and be whisked away. On one occasion, when the swan departed without him he ad libbed…”What time’s the next swan?”

I find it interesting to note that when Slezak returned to films in the ’60s, many of them were adaptations of children’s literature: The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), Heidi (1968), Black Beauty (1971), and Treasure Island (1972). In 1971 his daughter Erika Slezak began playing the role of Viki Lord on the daytime soap One Life to Live, a role she played for over for four decades. Walter made a cameo appearance on the show in the role of her stepfather in the mid ’70s.

Naturally by this point, Slezak was well into his ’70s. He began to develop health problems: a bad ticker, prostrate trouble, and a painful shoulder injury. Miserable and in pain, with little hope of ever regaining his former health, he took his own life with a pistol at his Long Island home about a week prior to his 81st birthday.