Walter Slezak (German pronunciation: [ˌvaltɐ ˈslɛzak]; 3 May 1902 – 21 April 1983) was an Austrian-born character actor and singer who appeared in German films before migrating to the US in 1930 and featuring in numerous Hollywood productions.
Slezak often portrayed villains or thugs, most notably the German U-boat captain in Alfred Hitchcock's film Lifeboat (1944), but occasionally he got to play lighter roles, as in The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962). He also played a cheerfully corrupt and philosophical private detective in the film noir Born to Kill (1947) and appeared as Squire Trelawney in Treasure Island (1972).
Life and career
Born in Vienna, the son of opera tenor Leo Slezak and Elsa Wertheim, he studied medicine for a time and later worked as a bank teller. His older sister Margarete Slezak was also an actress. He was talked into taking his first role, in the 1922 Austrian film Sodom und Gomorrah, by his friend and the film's director, Michael Curtiz.
In his early movie career, before he gained a great deal of weight, Slezak was cast as a thin leading man in silent films. He also acted on the stage for many years, debuting on Broadway in 1931. In Vienna in the 1930s, Slezak was close friends with heiress Maria Altmann and her family.
His first American film was Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942), with Ginger Rogers and Cary Grant. He worked steadily and appeared in over 100 films including The Princess and the Pirate (1944), The Spanish Main (1945), Sinbad the Sailor (1947), Born to Kill (1947), Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion (1950), People Will Talk (1951), and Call Me Madam (1953).
Slezak played the lead in Broadway musicals, including Fanny, for which he won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical.
Slezak acted in radio in such shows as Lux Radio Theater, Columbia Workshop, The Pepsodent Show, and The Charlie McCarthy Show. He made numerous television appearances, including in the programs This Is Show Business, Playhouse 90, and Studio One, and appeared as The Clock King in episodes 45 and 46 of TV series Batman (1966).
In the 1970s, Slezak played the non-singing role of Frosch, the jailer, in the San Francisco Opera production of Johann Strauss' operetta Die Fledermaus. Later film roles in Britain included the Cliff Richard vehicle Wonderful Life (1964) and Black Beauty (1971).
His autobiography, What Time's the Next Swan? was published in 1962. The book's title refers to an alleged incident in the career of his father, heldentenor Leo Slezak. During a performance in the title role of Lohengrin, the elder Slezak was supposed to finish his aria by stepping into a swan boat and then being pulled offstage. When a stagehand removed the boat prematurely, Slezak supposedly reacted to the error by asking the audience "What Time's the Next Swan?"
Slezak married Johanna "Kaasi" Van Rijn on October 10, 1943. The couple had three children: Ingrid, Erika, and Leo. Erika went on to become an Emmy-winning actress, and starred as Victoria Lord on the long-running soap opera One Life to Live from 1971 to its cancellation in 2012. In 1974, Slezak appeared on the series as her character's godfather, Lazlo Braedecker.
On 21 April 1983, Slezak died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was reportedly despondent over his advanced physical illness. As was his father, he is buried in Rottach-Egern.
In 1955, Slezak won a Tony Award for his role in the Broadway production of Fanny.
- Sodom and Gomorrah (1922)
- Michael (1924)
- My Leopold (1924)
- Young Blood (1926)
- The Sea Cadet (1926)
- Watch on the Rhine (1926)
- The Lorelei (1927)
- The Long Intermission (1927)
- Goodbye Youth (1927)
- Eros in Chains (1929)
- Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942)
- This Land Is Mine (1943)
- The Fallen Sparrow (1943)
- Lifeboat (1944) - Willi
- The Princess and the Pirate (1944)
- Step Lively (1944)
- The Spanish Main (1945)
- Cornered (1945)
- Sinbad the Sailor (1947)
- Born to Kill (1947)
- Riffraff (1947)
- The Pirate (1948)
- The Inspector General (1949)
- Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion (1950)
- The Yellow Cab Man (1950)
- Bedtime for Bonzo (1951)
- People Will Talk (1951)
- Call Me Madam (1953)
- White Witch Doctor (1953)
- The Miracle (1959)
- Come September (1961)
- The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962)
- Wonderful Life (1964)
- Dr. Coppelius (1966)
- Heidi (1968) - Father Richter
- The Juggler of Notre Dame (1970) - The Innkeeper
- Black Beauty (1971) - Hackenschmidt
- Treasure Island (1972) - Squire Trelawney
- The Mysterious House of Dr. C (1976) - Dr. Coppelius