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Lyle Wheeler, Who Won 5 Oscars for Art Direction, Dies at 84

January 12, 1990|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lyle Wheeler, filmdom's indefatigable art director whose five Oscars include such entertainment marvels as "Gone With the Wind," "Anna and the King of Siam" and "The Diary of Anne Frank," died Wednesday.

Wheeler, who was nominated on 24 other occasions for the Academy Award, also won the gold statue for "The Robe" and "The King and I." He was 84 when he died of the complications of pneumonia at the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital in Woodland Hills.

Wheeler had returned to the public eye for a poignant moment last year when a former New York hospital supervisor succeeded in reuniting him with the Oscar he won for "Anne Frank." It had been auctioned off because financial reverses had prevented the then-retired architect and art director from paying a storage bill.

At his death, Wheeler was considered the dean of the long-ago art directors who gave shape to the ideas and images of Hollywood's Golden Age.

Known primarily for a long association with producers David O. Selznick and Alexander Korda, Wheeler also was an artist off the film set, designing the Beverly Hills Post Office, the Hawthorne Elementary School in Beverly Hills, a fountain at Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards, the decorative exterior of Hoover Dam and numerous homes for friends and associates.

But it was as a film craftsman that he will best be remembered.

A native of Auburn, Mass., Wheeler came to Long Beach as a youth with his family and attended the USC School of Architecture, where he later received an honorary degree.

His first film art direction credit came in 1936 for "The Garden of Allah" (an early experiment in color) and his last in 1975 for "Posse." (He did design in his later years for television, including several segments of "Perry Mason" and "Lassie.")

Between those years were about 400 films, including "The Prisoner of Zenda" in 1937, for which he received his first Oscar nomination, to "The Cardinal" in 1963, his last. Others included "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing," "Journey to the Center of the Earth," "David and Bathsheba" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

Of all his films, he would tell friends, he was proudest of his work in 1945-46 on "Anna and the King of Siam," which won him his second Academy Award. That was a black-and-white version of the beloved tale of the English school teacher and the martinet monarch. He would describe the challenge in re-creating those sets for color for the 1956 version of Anna's story, this one set to music as "The King and I."

(The first "Anna" had been filmed in black and white because of a painters' strike and to compensate for the lack of color, Wheeler built sets of plaster that were treated to reflect various color values.)

For "Gone With the Wind," Wheeler created the painfully accurate sets for the production designed by William Cameron Menzies. His black-and-white work probably was best displayed in the haunting thrillers "Laura" and "Rebecca."

From 1944 to 1960, Wheeler was supervising art director at 20th Century Fox, where he was involved in the transition from standard screen fare to Cinema-Scope. His other credits in that period included Academy Award nominations for "Leave Her to Heaven," "The Foxes of Harrow," "Come to the Stable," "All About Eve," "Fourteen Hours," "My Cousin Rachel," "Desiree," "Daddy Long Legs" and "A Certain Smile."

He became an independent in 1960, working for such producers as Otto Preminger and Jerry Lewis.

But after retiring he suffered the financial reverses that forced him out of his home and into a hotel room. He packed and stored most of his belongings--including all five Oscars. He was unable to pay the storage bill, which rose to more than $30,000, and his goods were sold at auction.

The five Oscars were purchased by a Long Beach couple who were themselves planning an auction when William Kaiser, a hospital administrator from Tuxedo Park, N.Y., heard the story and took $17,000 from his savings to retrieve one of them.

At a poignant ceremony last March 24 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the site of the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, Kaiser reunited Wheeler with his 1959 "Anne Frank" Oscar.

"I didn't believe I was ever going to see even one of these again," Wheeler said, looking down with moist eyes at the golden statuette.

A widower, he is survived by six children, 13 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. A memorial service is pending.

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