Ira Wheeler, actor, former BI resident

Sat, 08/24/2002 - 5:00am

Ira B. Wheeler, who became a successful movie actor after retiring as a business executive, died on Aug. 10 in New York of lung and heart disease. He was 81.

Ira and Grace Wheeler, his first wife, began summering on Block Island in 1956 with their family. In 1960 they bought the Josiah Peckham farm on the west side of the island. The West Side wasn't always as popular as it is today. In the house they found a postcard to Peckham from his cousin in town that read: "Dear Cousin Josiah, Please don't invite me to lunch again. You know that I do not visit the West Side."

In 1965, Ira and Grace Wheeler were among a group of summer residents who founded the Block Island Club.

Wheeler's movie career began in 1981, when, acting on a whim, he answered an ad seeking someone to play a businessman in "Rollover," a film starring Jane Fonda, Hume Cronyn and Kris Kristofferson. He won the part and played the role of a vice president of a major chemical company, which was exactly the job he held in real life as a vice president of Celanese Corporation. The next year he retired from what is now Hoechst Celanese Corp. to concentrate on acting and volunteer as a consultant for non-profit organizations.

Over the next 20 years he appeared in 24 other films, including "The Killing Fields," "Wall Street" and "Analyze This." Wheeler appeared in 12 films directed by Woody Allen, beginning with "Hannah and Her Sisters."

Although Wheeler came to the profession late with little training, Allen quickly saw an actor who could play a variety of parts. "There are some people, the moment you read them you know you can use them. Ira Wheeler is like that," Allen told his biographer, Eric Lax. "He came in to do one line as the doctor in Hannah, and the minute he sat down and read the line, it was a real human talking," Allen said.

Wheeler also appeared on a number of television shows, including several episodes of "Law and Order." He was featured in the Spaulding Grey memoir, "Swimming to Cambodia."

Wheeler, who lived in New York City, also served as a volunteer with the National Executive Service Corps, and later joined the board of directors. Among the organizations he advised were the Dance Theater of Harlem, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Legal Services, Lincoln Center Chamber Society, the Actors Fund, and Literacy Partners, where he later served on the board of directors.

Wheeler graduated from Deerfield Academy in 1938 and Princeton in 1942. He served as a lieutenant in the Coast Guard during World War II, and was the executive officer of an LST in the Pacific.

Wheeler is survived by Mary T. Wheeler, his wife of 21 years, and by two children from an earlier marriage, Darcy Bacon of Washington, D.C., and Block Island, and Timothy Wheeler of Idaho Springs, Colo., and two grandchildren. He also had six stepchildren. Four children from his first marriage died before he did. Two of his children, Bo and Ann, are buried in the Block Island cemetery.