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WITH AN EYE ON . . . : Michael Zaslow stirs the plot on 'Guiding Light' and hopes for more

October 02, 1994|ROBERT RORKE | Robert Rorke is a New York-based free-lance writer

NEW YORK — For actor Michael Zaslow, the secret to playing a successful soap villain used to be "leaving every so often, either dying or being sent off in disgrace."

As Roger Thorpe on CBS' daytime drama "Guiding Light," Zaslow has done both--taking two sabbaticals from the role he has played for more than 20 years and coming back stronger (and meaner) and more compelling each time.

His most recent return to the show, in 1989, resulted in a series of dynamic story lines that made Thorpe the focus and earned him three nominations for the best actor Daytime Emmy. He won the prize last May in a moment he clearly relished but doesn't expect to pave the way to future riches.

"It doesn't hurt that I got (the Emmy), but if somebody calls and asks about my interest in a movie or a TV movie, is it because I won the Emmy?" Zaslow wonders over lunch at the Central Park Boathouse cafe. "I don't know, because I've been around for 25 years and I show no signs of quitting, so they say, 'Well if he's gonna be in our faces ...' "

Zaslow trails off with some hearty laughter but his background bears out his belief that "a career is largely a result of tenacity, perseverance, talent and luck, perhaps with luck rated at the top of that list."

In his early days, Zaslow acknowledges he was a theater snob. "Television was an accident to me," he says. "I was a serious artiste. I didn't want to be a star in that sense."

On this sweltering summer day, the 51-year-old actor could not look less like his devious TV character. He's traded Thorpe's double-breasted Armani armor for green shorts and a green embroidered Central Park T-shirt. His trusty, 20-year-old Motobecane bicycle is locked up outside. Like Roger, Zaslow's career is full of surprises. His early days acting were spent on the West Coast, in musicals, both as a baritone with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera and the USO (he toured Asia playing opposite Bonnie Franklin in "Carousel").

The Inglewood, Calif., native, who graduated UCLA with a degree in political science, did his share of episodic television before tackling Broadway. There, in 1971, he starred as Perchik in "Fiddler on the Roof," where he met his wife Susan Hufford, whose career is as diverse as his own. Once a singer-actress, she's now a psychotherapist. The couple have adopted two Korean girls, Marika, 11, and Helena, 8. "I would never have been able to stay on a show--I'm in my sixth year now--before children," he confesses.

Another strong reason for doing daytime cropped up three years ago when Zaslow and National Endowment for the Arts chairperson Jane Alexander, among others, were embezzled by their business manager-- "Everything we'd ever saved." While his business manager serves a jail sentence, Zaslow has to pay back taxes to the government for returns he and his wife thought were filed but never were.

While Zaslow has no "aching" ambition "to be on a prime-time series at all," he and pal Ed Sherin (Alexander's husband and producer of "Law & Order") have discussed possible roles for him on the New York-based prime-time show. ("I was considered for about a minute and a half for Michael Moriarty's replacement," Zaslow reveals with a smile.)

What he really wants to do, though, is get back to the theater. Emmy Award notwithstanding, the stage is where Zaslow had what he expects will be the most "magic" moment of his career: the night he took over--on three hours' notice--for an ailing Keir Dullea in the 1974 Broadway revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," opposite Elizabeth Ashley.

"When I came out for my curtain call, right before Liz, the audience stood up and started going to town. Then she came out after me applauding and separated the whole cast, just left me and my crutch and my vulnerability, center stage looking out there."

Moments like that are rare in any career. Until another one occurs, Michael Zaslow will have to be satisfied with his Emmy--more than television's equivalent of a standing ovation.

"Guiding Light" airs weekdays at 2 p.m. on CBS.

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