Walter Slezak

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.[1]

Walter Slezak
Slezak, c. 1925
Born(1902-05-03)3 May 1902
Died21 April 1983(1983-04-21) (aged 80)
Cause of deathSelf-inflicted gunshot wound
Resting placeRottach-Egern, Germany
Other namesWalt Slezak
OccupationActor, singer
Years active1922–1980
Johanna Van Rijn (m. 1943)
Children3, including Erika Slezak
Parent(s)Leo Slezak
Elsa Wertheim
AwardsTony Award (1955)

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) and as a wandering gypsy in The Inspector General (1949). 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).[2]

Life and career

Born in Vienna, the son of opera tenor Leo Slezak and Elisabeth "Elsa" Wertheim, he studied medicine for a time and later worked as a bank teller. His older sister Margarete Slezak was also an actress.[1] 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.[1]

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.[1] In Vienna in the 1930s, Slezak was close friends with heiress Maria Altmann and her family.[3]

His first American film was Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942), with Ginger Rogers and Cary Grant.[1] 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).[2]

Slezak played the lead in Broadway musicals, including Fanny, for which he won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical.[4]

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 The Loretta Young Show, 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).[2]

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.[5] Later film roles in Britain included the Cliff Richard vehicle Wonderful Life (1964) and Black Beauty (1971).[2]


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?"[6]

Personal life

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.[1]


On 21 April 1983, Slezak died from a self-inflicted gunshot.[1] He was reportedly despondent over the state of his health, most notably heart trouble, a recent prostate operation, and a shoulder injury requiring several treatments a week.[7][8][9] He was buried in the grave of his parents in the cemetery of St. Laurentius Church, Egern.[10]


In 1955, Slezak won a Tony Award for his role in the Broadway production of Fanny.[11]

Complete filmography

See also


  1. "Turner Classic Movies: Biography for Walter Slezak". Retrieved 17 December 2009.
  2. Walter Slezak on IMDb
  3. Collins, Gregor (15 August 2012). "The Accidental Caregiver: How I Met, Loved, and Lost Legendary Holocaust Refugee Maria Altmann". Bloch-Bauer Books via Amazon.
  4. "Erika Slezak profile". Retrieved 16 December 2009.
  5. ""Die Fledermaus" in S.F." 16 September 2006. Retrieved 9 March 2012.
  6. Trabling, Walt. "Slezak Offers Memoir". Santa Cruz Sentinel. 21 October 1962. Retrieved 18 December 2018.
  7. Jones, Jack. "Actor Walter Slezak Shoots Self to Death at New York Home". Los Angeles Times. 23 April 1983. Retrieved 17 December 2018.
  8. "WALTER SLEZAK, ACTOR, IS A SUICIDE AT 80 ON L.I." The New York Times. 23 April 1983.
  9. Thomas Staedeli, Portrait of the actor Walter Slezak,; accessed 6 November 2016.
  10. "Star | Walter Slezak". 21 April 1983. Retrieved 9 March 2012.
  11. Associated Press. "Tony Awards Given Lunt and College Trio". San Bernardino Sun. 28 March 1955. Retrieved 18 December 2018.
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