Youngstown native rides in on "Hell on Wheels"

For an accomplished actor, Victor Slezak sure keeps a low profile.

The Youngstown native has a slew of credits on high-end shows, but he likes to stay out of the limelight.

Slezak, a 1975 graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School, made an exception this week because he is appearing on the acclaimed AMC Western series “Hell on Wheels.” He will play Col. Ulysses S. Grant on Saturday’s episode, which airs at 9 p.m.

“Hell on Wheels” is centered around a crew building the transcontinental railroad in the Wild West era right after the Civil War.

Slezak also has recurring roles on the CBS series “Bluebloods” and on FX’s “The Americans,” and will be part of the WE drama “The Divide,” which will premiere next year.

As for his role on “Hell on Wheels,” it might be one that he was born to play. Or so others seem to think.

In a phone call from his New York home, Slezak recalled how his connection to Grant began. “About 10 or 15 years ago, I was doing a writer-actor think tank in North Carolina, and there was a young kid there who gave me a strange look,” he said. “I said to him, ‘What’s up?,’ and he said, ‘Sir, I am now reading a biography on Ulysses S. Grant, and you are the spitting image of him.’”

The same thing happened to Slezak about two years ago when an actor he was working with — a Civil War buff — said to him, “You have got to play Grant.”

Slezak didn’t know anything about “Hell on Wheels,” but a friend of his who was directing an episode suggested he audition. Slezak did and won the role.

It came out of the blue, but Slezak got up to speed by reading Grant’s memoirs.

The “Hell on Wheels” role isn’t the first time he played a president. Slezak played John F. Kennedy three times: in the Broadway production “Jackie: An American Life”; in an episode of the TV series “Witchblade” and in the indie film “Time Quest.”

When he was a toddler, Slezak actually met JFK — although he doesn’t remember it. The candidate was in Youngstown for a campaign stop, and Slezak’s grandfather took him downtown to see him. After the speech, Kennedy shook his hand and gave him a kiss.

Slezak grew up on Williamson Avenue, and later Detroit Avenue, on the South Side and attended St. Stanislaus School through eighth grade.

After high school he went to New York City to pursue acting, but the money just wasn’t there, so he went to work as an artist at an advertising agency.

He didn’t get bitten by the acting bug again until years later when he was asked to create scenery for an opera company in western New York. It was then that he knew acting was where he belonged, and he never went back to the ad firm.

Instead, Slezak began to pursue stage roles and would go on to study with legendary actress-instructor Uta Hagen at HB Studio in New York.

Television followed Slezak’s stage work, including a recurring role on the ABC soap opera “The Guiding Light” in the ’80s, and Broadway roles would come after that.

It was while doing “Guiding Light” that Slezak realized he didn’t like the off-camera frenzy that could come with the job.

During a visit to Youngstown, he and his sister went to Southern Park Mall. Someone recognized him as a soap actor while he was at the checkout counter, and a crowd soon gathered

“The place went berzerk, and people started screaming,” he recalled. “I turned to my sister and said, ‘I don’t like this.’ After that I started to keep it low key. [The public attention] just wasn’t something I was interested in. I’ve been quiet [about my acting success] for the last 25 years. I love what I do and I don’t need to be famous.”

Slezak recalled an interesting anecdote from his early days as an actor in New York. He was friends with a fellow Youngstown native named Ed O’Neill. Both men were unknowns, pursuing a dream, and they had just finished a stint together on a stage production of “Of Mice and Men.”

O’Neill called Slezak one day and asked him to come over to his tiny apartment. There, he handed Slezak a script he had received but was a tad leery about, and asked if he would read it.

When he was done, O’Neill said to Slezak, “Would you do this role?” Slezak responded in the affirmative, adding, “If you want to do it, go ahead and do it.”

The role was Al Bundy, and the script was for the Fox sitcom “Married ... With Children,” which would become the springboard that propelled O’Neill’s great career.

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