Heeding a siren’s song
He was the last person you’d want to glimpse in your rearview mirror as you blasted down the boulevard.
Motorcycle cop Robert Wheeler looked the part -- lean, muscular, confident. He acted the part too.
“He was a guy who took care of business in the street,” says former motor Officer Bob Young. “He was the kind of guy who if you needed to take someone down or struggle in the gutter, he was there.”
So his buddies in the Los Angeles Police Department weren’t surprised when Wheeler stepped in one day to break up a fight in Panorama City. In the scuffle, he suffered a herniated disc that forced his retirement and put an end to his police career.
What surprised them is what happened after that.
Wheeler turned into a romance novelist. And then he became an abstract painter whose work now hangs on the walls of galleries and upscale homes across Los Angeles.
The inspiration for the writing and painting came from the side of the road, where Wheeler found himself when he landed a retirement gig as a part-time movie location security officer. He wears the same LAPD blues, except now stamped into his badge is the word “retired.”
Despite what drivers might think as they pass him by, baby-sitting a film shoot can be boring. There are often long stretches between takes, and then officers are only used for a few moments to briefly stop traffic while a scene is shot.
Wheeler began killing time by writing. Perched on his motorcycle with a yellow pad on his knee, he wrote love poems. And then one romance novel, and another.
“People would always ask what I was doing sitting. They’d say, ‘Are you writing a letter?’ and I’d say, ‘No, I’m writing a novel.’ They say, ‘Oh, about your job? You’re writing about crime and police?’ I’d tell them, ‘No, I’m writing a love story,’ ” Wheeler says.
“Writing love stories, sitting in the gutters of L.A.”
After publishing “Love Forever Lost” and “Beyond Yesterday,” Wheeler turned to art. Drawing from the colorful downtown street scenes he experienced on film shoots, he began painting modernist abstracts that swirled with both motion and emotion.
His bold acrylic canvases have been shown in galleries and sold around the world.
Wheeler is on downtown’s Spring Street, soaking up the dazzling sunlight reflected from nearby skyscrapers, the vibrant colors from freshly cleaned and painted buildings and the exciting blur of modern downtown street life.
When the filming is done, Wheeler rides his 1998 Harley-Davidson Springer Heritage back to his home above Topanga Canyon. There he translates what he’s seen into artwork that he feels.
“I’ve done a few things. I guess I’m a Renaissance guy,” the 66-year-old says with a laugh.
He was a gruff Los Angeles motorcycle officer for 10 years. At the time, Daryl F. Gates was police chief and current City Councilman Dennis Zine was Wheeler’s motorcycle sergeant in the San Fernando Valley.
Before joining the Police Department, Wheeler had served in the U.S. Coast Guard, worked as a stenotypist for the Santa Fe Railroad and been a picture cost estimator for 20th Century Fox studios, where he worked on films such as “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and the “Batman” series.
“I was the low man on the totem pole. I seemed to be always on hiatus. A friend said, ‘Why don’t you join the Police Department and you won’t get laid off.’ When I joined the LAPD a friend asked if I wanted to work on movie shoots off-duty,” Wheeler recalled.
He started guarding filming locations, and his wife, Denise, became involved in the film permit process.
She now owns her own film permit company.
After being forced into retirement, Wheeler learned scuba diving and searched for gold by diving to Spanish galleons that sank long ago off the coast of Colombia.
Occasionally, he played a policeman in a movie or TV show. Wardrobe managers covered over his LAPD uniform arm patch with a phony one and replaced his LAPD retiree’s badge with a prop shield to avoid any legal conflict.
Then Wheeler began writing.
“I didn’t want to do a police novel. Joseph Wambaugh had already done that. So I wrote romance novels,” said Wheeler -- who was quickly nicknamed the “curbside writer” by movie crews.
“Love Forever Lost,” was self-published in 2000. That was followed in 2003 by “Beyond Yesterday.” It features a wispy, stylized photo of daughter-in-law Cheryl Wheeler gazing wistfully from its cover. Both were minor sellers.
Police officers who remembered him from the old days at first didn’t know what to make of Wheeler.
“A lot of them laughed,” recalled John Karr, now a retired officer who lives in Santa Clarita. “One day Bob handed me this thing and said, ‘Read this.’ I did and I told him afterward it was interesting and would make a good movie.’ He said, ‘I wrote it.’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure you did. And I’m a multimillionaire who goes to work on a motorcycle just for fun.’ ”
Soon, LAPD motorcycle officers were detouring by film shoots looking for the guy writing the romance novel.
“I was actually kind of envious and proud,” said Young, who lives in Agoura. “This was something that has nothing to do with machismo. It has to do with the heart.”
Said Zine: “When he was an officer he was the kind of guy you’d like to have at your side if you got in a fight. . . . It just shows you can’t judge a book by its cover.”
The downtown movie locations that were the backdrop for Wheeler’s writing now inspire his paintings.
He’s a devotee of Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso. He loves the interplay of intense colors and the flow of paint that brings his artwork to life.
Still, “it’s a challenge to go from being out in the street carrying a weapon to being in the studio. I get an idea in my mind -- see his shirt, the orange and yellow and green? -- I get ideas from things like that,” Wheeler says, pointing to a man walking past the Spring Street filming location.
Wheeler’s paintings have been shown in galleries in Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo and Montreal. Eighty-seven of them have sold, at prices ranging from $500 to $2,000.
Five of Wheeler’s paintings hang at the Petit Louvre Art Gallery in Woodland Hills. Gallery owner Les Field likens Wheeler’s abstract impressionist style to that of Pollock.
“One time he rode here on his big Harley and I had to go out and try on his helmet and sit on his motorcycle,” Field says. “When he is in uniform, it’s a completely different demeanor. He walks in different worlds.”
Wheeler doesn’t normally talk to gallery operators when he’s wearing his knee-high boots, badge and pistol. “I don’t want owners to be nervous, seeing somebody walk in wearing a uniform,” he says.
Sometimes, the uniform doesn’t matter. One downtown gallery owner invited him to show there next April after a film crew member mentioned Wheeler’s work.
“I was surprised when I heard what he does,” said Russ Martin, a film grip who has worked with Wheeler for 10 years. “I’d always seen him with a pad doodling or taking notes. But until someone told me, I never knew.”
Wheeler paints in his garage. He likes to work in the cool, early morning hours with 1940s-era music playing in the background.
He puts on a paint-stained apron and begins laying glistening dabs and drips of black on a canvas. He often signs his abstracts on the back so their eventual owners can hang them in whatever direction their mood dictates.
He doesn’t mind drops of paint on his concrete garage floor. But the old motorcycle cop is mindful of his professional appearance.
He’s learned the hard way, Wheeler says, that he needs to immediately wipe up any paint that spatters on his movie-shoot Harley.