Max Wagner

Max Wagner
Max Wagner
Born November 4, 1901
Torreón, Coahuila, Mexico
Died November 16, 1975(1975-11-16) (aged 74)
Hollywood, California, United States
Cause of death Heart attack
Occupation Actor
Years active 1924–1975

Max Wagner (November 28, 1901 – November 16, 1975) was a Mexican-born American film actor who specialized in playing small parts such as thugs, gangsters, sailors, henchmen, bodyguards, cab drivers and moving men, appearing in over 300 films in his career, most without receiving screen credit. Newspaper gossip columnists noted his rise from playing "Gangster #4", with no lines, and not carrying a gun, to "Gangster #2", with both lines and a gun.[1][2]



Wagner was one of five children, all boys, of William Wallace Wagner, a railroad conductor, and Edith Wagner, a writer who provided dispatches for the Christian Science Monitor during the Mexican Revolution. When he was 10 years old, his father was killed by rebels and the family moved to Salinas, California, where he met John Steinbeck, who became a life-long friend. Steinback based the character of the boy in his novel The Red Pony on Wagner.

Three of Wagner's brothers were working in Hollywood – Jack Wagner and Blake Wagner as cameramen for D.W. Griffith, Hal Roach and Mack Sennett, and Bob as an assistant cameraman at First National – and Max Wagner moved there in 1924, where he got an acting job on the Harry Langdon film his brother Jack was working on, All Night Long.

Under the name "Max Baron", Wagner acted in many Spanish-language versions of English-language films, which studios made as a matter of course in the early days of sound films, He also served as a Spanish language coach for other actors, and appeared in many of the "Mexican Spitfire" films starring Lupe Vélez, where he also served to monitor Velez's Spanish ad-libs for profanity.

Other series that Wagner appeared in include the Charlie Chan films, and Tom Mix serials, as well as others made by Mascot Pictures Corporation. In the 1940s, Wagner was part of Preston Sturges' unofficial "stock company" of character actors, appearing in six films written and directed by Sturges, beginning with The Palm Beach Story[3]

In 1940 during the filming of "The Mad Doctor", Wagner was credited for driving 50,000 miles as an on-screen taxi driver on the studio back lots of Hollywood. Since his appearance as a cab driver in "Charlie Chan in Shanghai" (1935), producers often cast him as a wise-cracking or henchman tax driver. "I was cast as a taxi driver about five years ago", Wagner told a reporter. "And I was typed." [4]

Max Wagner in 1933.

Wagner's career has several breaks in it. He served with the U.S. Army in the North African Campaign of World War II, and his struggle with alcoholism caused a break in 1950.

Paul Kelly case

Wagner was the star prosecution witness in the manslaughter trials of actor Paul Kelly and actress/screenwriter Dorothy Mackaye in 1927. Wagner was Kelly's roommate. During an alcohol-fueled party and Wagner and Kelly's apartment on April 16, 1927, Kelly beat to death Mackaye's husband, Ray Raymond, a Vaudeville entertainer. Kelly and Mackaye had been seeing each other for some time before the fight had occurred. Wagner was present when Kelly and Raymond were fighting.[5]

Kelly was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in state prison. Mackaye was sentenced to 10 months in prison on accessory and concealing evidence convictions. Kelly and Mackaye were married after Kelly's released from prison. Wagner and Kelly appeared together in two films after the incident: "Death on the Diamond" (1934) and "Frenchie" (1950).

Television appearances

In 1952, Wagner began to appear on television, in episodes of such shows as The Cisco Kid, Zane Grey Theater and Perry Mason, playing much the same kind of parts he played in the movies.

He was a regular cast member on the western television series Gunsmoke, making nearly 60 appearances between 1960 and 1973. He also appeared in many The Rifleman and Maverick episodes, including a guest starring role in The Rifleman's "Blood Brothers." He appeared in more than 150 television episodes between 1952 and 1974.

Notable roles for Wagner include appearing in a supporting role in the cult science fiction classic Invaders from Mars (1953),[1] an actor playing a gangster in the film-within-a-film segment of Bullets or Ballots (1936), and the bull farm attendant in Laurel and Hardy's The Bullfighters (1945).[2] Late in his career, he appeared in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). He also occasionally composed music, such as the Mexican folk ballad "Pedro, Rudarte y Simon," in the Western film The Last Trail (1933).

Wagner died of a heart attack in Hollywood in 1975, just 12 days before his 74th birthday.[1]


  1. ^ a b c IMDB Biography
  2. ^ a b Erickson, Hal Biography (Allmovie)
  3. ^ Wagner appeared in every film made by Sturges from 1942 to 1949, with the single exception of Hail the Conquering Hero. He can be seen in The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, The Great Moment, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, Unfaithfully Yours, and The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend, Sturges' last American picture.
  4. ^ Herald Journal
  5. ^ Milwaukee Sentinel

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