Like thousands of "day actors' during Hollywood's Golden Era, Max Wagner toiled in relative obscurity in supporting and bit roles with the occasional meaty character part. It was a film career that sustained him as a durable and dependable actor from the mid-1920s through the '70s.
The youngest of five boys, Wagner was born in Mexico, the son of William W. Wagner, a railroad conductor. His mother, Edith Wagner, was a writer and correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor during the Mexican Revolution. He was 10 years old when Mexican rebels fatally wounded his father. His mother then brought him to Salinas, California, where he struck up a lifelong friendship with John Steinbeck. Wagner served as a model for the boy in Steinbeck's novel "The Red Pony" and he would appear in many of the films based on Steinbeck's books.
Max's brothers - Jack, Blake, and Bob - were already in Hollywood working on films. Jack and Blake worked under D.W. Griffith at Biograph as cameramen and later went to work for Hal Roach and Mack Sennett. Bob worked on the First National lot as an assistant cameraman. At 23 years old, Max joined his brothers in Hollywood. Jack was working on a Harry Langdon film in 1924 and helped Max secure his first acting part. His early experiences at Mack Sennett honed his talent in physical comedy that would serve him well throughout his career.
During the early talkie period studios often made Spanish-language versions of their popular films. Max, fluent in Spanish, acted in many such films in supporting roles under the name of Max Baron. Studios often went to him to serve as a Spanish-language coach for actors. He appeared alongside Lupe Velez in the "Mexican Spitfire" series and when he wasn't acting, he monitored Velez's ad-libbing in Spanish to spot any profanity.
While most of Max's work was with major studios, he was a regular with Mascot, the low-budget studio that churned out serials including "The Lost Jungle (1934) and Tom Mix's "The Miracle Rider" (1935). Max was a regular in the Charlie Chan series and was a company player with Preston Sturges, appearing in such films as "The Palm Beach Story" (1942), "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" (1944), "The Great Moment" (1944) and "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock" (1946).
During World War II, he took a break to serve in the U.S. Army in North Africa.
His tough, brawny appearance made him a casting director's perfect choice for gangster roles, giving him unlimited work as a henchman in dozens of Warner Bros. films in the 1930s. Los Angeles newspaper gossip columnists used to jokingly chart his rise from Gangster No. 4 (no gun, no dialog) to Gangster No. 2 (gun and dialog).
A lifelong heavy drinker, Max struggled off and on with alcoholism. He entered Alcoholics Anonymous in 1950, but resumed acting the following year.
His most notable appearance in films came in 1953 with the role of Sgt. Rinaldi in the cult sci-fi classic "Invaders from Mars." The same year he was also cast in "Donovan's Brain," another cult favorite.
By the 1960s, Max was cast mostly in bit parts in film and television westerns and dramas, ending his career with small parts in such TV series as "Gunsmoke" and "Columbo."