Walter Slezak was born May 3, 1902 in Vienna, Austria, to famed opera singer Leo Slezak and his wife Marie. His father encouraged all of his children to be entertainers, and at an early age Walter was singing and dancing for audiences across the country. His sister Margarate often joined him, and she is famous in her own right for her work in Austrian film. By 20, though, he had tired of his acting days, and entered medical school to become a doctor.
His Big Break
Two years into school, he was approached by a friend, the prolific young director Michael Curtiz, who saw Slezak as a great romantic lead for his new epic film, tentatively titled "Sodom and Gomorrah." Slezak agreed to take the role, as long as it didn't interfere with his studies. By the end of the movie, he had dropped out of school, but the film soared at the box office, and Walter was a star. He continued to act in a number of Austrian films, and later moved to Berlin, where his status as a star grew - along with his waistline. By the time he was 30, he weighed nearly 250 pounds, and his days as a leading man were all but over. He decided it would be best if he moved to America, where an actor of his stature would do well.
What A Character
After twelve years on Broadway, Slezak finally began making movies in Hollywood. It didn't take long for Walter to make his rounds in Tinseltown. Already 40 years old, his vibrant handlebar moustache, thick German eyebrows and proud papa smile gave him the perfect look to play the two-faced con man and general Teutonic fall guy. He couldn't have asked for a better American debut: he got to play the wife of Ginger Rogers in Once Upon a Honeymoon. Small German roles in other films followed - including a stint alongside Bob Hope in the caper The Princess and the Pirate - until he was given his big break by none other than that other famous Hollywood round of mound, Alfred Hitchcock. He was given the role of Willy, the well-spoken but mysterious sailor picked up by William Bendix and company in Lifeboat. The character's depth (with help from a screenplay by John Steinbeck) attuned perfectly to Slezak's secretive and sly nature. That same year, 1944, Walter met and married Johanna Van Ryn. The couple had three children, including "One Life to Live" matriarch Erika Slezak (Walter also appeared on "One Life to Live" for a few episodes in 1968.)
OVer the years, Walter acted in a number of successful movies, including the 1947 big-budget swashbuckler Sinbad the Sailor; the 1949 Danny Kaye smash comedy The Inspector General; the Ronald Reagan vehicle Bedtime for Bonzo; and a personal favorite, the brooding and highly stylized The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm in 1962. He also served as host of "The Chevy Mystery Show" from 1960 until its close in spring of 1961, and made a number of guest appearances on such shows as "Danger!", "77 Sunset Strip", and the guest panelist game show "I've Got A Secret." He also made sporadic appearances back on Broadway, even picking up a Tony Award in 1955 for his role in the musical Fanny.
By 1962 (the year he penned his autobiography, What Time Is the Next Swan?), Walter's career was already beginning to wind down: he was 65 years old and had made nearly 30 movies in his career. In 1966, he was given a role on TV's "Batman" as The Clock King, a deliciously fiendish character who could stop time. He also starred in a made-for-TV version of the lovable story "Heidi" and as Friar Tuck in the short-lived NBC series "The Legend of Robin Hood." In 1972, he starred opposite Orson Welles in the John Hough version of Treasure Island. His final appearance on screen was in 1980, playing alongside Jimmie Walker in an episode of "The Love Boat."
By then, Slezak had acquired a number of health problems, including a heart condition and arthritis. In constant pain, Walter finally ended it all with a single gunshot at his home in Flower Hill, New York on April 21, 1983.