'He was the man': Remembering Eric Wheeler

Eric Wheeler Interact's 2011 production of 'JOY!' with Kat Corey and Ryan Lee
Eric Wheeler Interact's 2011 production of 'JOY!' with Kat Corey and Ryan Lee
Courtesy Interact Center for Visual and Performing Arts

The Twin Cities lost a great actor this week. Eric Vernon Wheeler, who had Down Syndrome, started his acting career 22 years ago at the age of 20 in a show called We're All in This Together. It was the first production by Interact Theatre (now Interact Center for Visual and Performing Arts). After his last performance with Interact on Saturday, Wheeler died on Tuesday, May 21 from cancer. He was 42 years old. 

Eric Wheeler  
Eric Wheeler  
Courtesy Interact Center for Visual and Performing Arts

In a 1994 Star Tribune profile on Interact written Peter Vaughan, the late theater critic described Wheeler as having "the look of a born ham."

"His eyes twinkle," Vaughan wrote. "His timing is spot-on. His voice rises and falls with the emotional surges of his character." 

Wheeler attended Roosevelt High School, where had tried out for Fiddler on the Roof but wasn't selected. He had a second chance, however, when the opportunity came up to audition for Interact.

In 1996, Jeanne Calvit formed Interact Center for Visual and Performing Arts, and Wheeler became one of the first members. Since then, he's done about 30 original plays, toured Europe twice, and has traveled all over the United States. He took a trip with Calvit to Australia to help create an original play there called Between Worlds, which they eventually brought back to the Twin Cities. He also spent time at a two-month residency in Thailand for people with and without disabilities. 

In mid-November, Wheeler was diagnosed with advanced stages of cancer, and given two months to live. "It was a death sentence," Calvit says.

Though the situation was dire, Wheeler still underwent chemotherapy, and missed Interact's holiday show. "We assumed that was it," Calvit says. However, they did have Wheeler perform a short pre-show shtick so that he could at least have a moment. 

After he finished his chemo treatment, and he was feeling better, Wheeler told his family that he wanted to go back to Interact.

Eric with the St. Paul Carnival Royal Court 
Eric with the St. Paul Carnival Royal Court 
Courtesy Interact Center for Visual and Performing Arts

"He had already outlived his diagnosis," says Calvit. "We put him in a small role."

Wheeler was to perform in a couple of short clown scenes, so that if he was sick or couldn't make it they could perform the show without him.

Wheeler, however, insisted on having a larger role. He "was always doing something hilarious," Calvit says, so he ended up being in quite a few scenes. 

Even as his condition worsened, Wheeler kept coming to rehearsals and performances, even when he had to start performing with an oxygen tank, which he carried in a backpack. 

Playing a crotchety NRA member, Wheeler had a bit in the show where he would take off his suspenders and dance in his underwear, says Interact staffer Scotty Reynolds. Even with the oxygen tank, the actor found a way to make it work hilariously. 

In the last week, the stage manager insisted that for his own safety, he perform in a wheelchair. 

"He wasn't happy with his performance," says Reynolds. 

The next day, Wheeler said, "I'm doing this on my own two feet," recalls Calvit. "And he was fine."  

Eric Wheeler with Interact artists and staff at the Ivey Awards 
Eric Wheeler with Interact artists and staff at the Ivey Awards 
Courtesy Interact Center for Visual and Performing Arts

The Friday before he died, Wheeler was able to celebrate his last birthday. They called him Sir Eric (after being knighted at the St. Paul Winter Carnival), and Kevin Kling and others bowed down to him. "He was taking it like, 'Of course. It's about time,'" says Calvit. 

Calvit says Wheeler was "one of the funniest human beings I've ever met in my life. He had the best wise cracks, and he put a comic twist on everything." 

He was also extremely professional. "You just give him the note, and he would nail it. Even at the end, when he was literally half dead, he would never miss a beat. He never missed anything," says Calvit.

Having travelled all around the world with him, their relationship was more than professional.  "He was like a brother to me," she says.  

Jack Reuler, artistic director of Mixed Blood Theatre, got to know Wheeler when Interact used to have shows at the space, as well as from a production of The Boys Next Door in which Wheeler performed. "He led with his sense of humor," Reuler says. "He found the humor in everything. He had great comic instincts, and he became kind of the signature of Interact."

At Saturday's performance, Wheeler said to Reuler: "I'll see you soon.  Either at the next show or on the other side." 

Warren Bowles, who directed Wheeler in The Boys Next Door as well as Live in the Funky Butt Jazz Club, a show created in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, speaks of Wheeler's sense of discipline and professionalism. Also, "he was a really pleasant person to be around and to work with," he says. "I really loved to watch him work. He was such a joy."

Ron Peluso, artistic director of the History Theatre, who directed Wheeler in Let Heaven and Nature Sing, a collaboration with Interact, says Wheeler "was one of the most delightful people we've ever worked with." Funny and smart, Peluso says Wheeler "totally immersed himself in the playing of the part." It was always fun to see him, says Peluso, who still keeps a picture of the actor on his wall. "There's a special place in my heart for him." 

But the last word on Eric Wheeler may go to Kevin Kling, who simply says this: "He was the man." 

Eric Wheeler's Memorial Service will take place 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 28 at Shoreview Community Center (4580 Victoria St. N., Shoreview). A gathering immediately follows the Mmeorial. In lieu of flowers, the family is suggesting donations be made to Interact.

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