This classic TV character actor played hundreds of roles and was childhood friends with author John Steinbeck
He even inspired one of Steinbeck’s novels.
There are many classic TV stars who still shape popular culture to this day. Whether it's actors who have continued thriving careers like Henry Winkler and Ron Howard or icons like Lucille Ball, whose legacy inspires younger generations not only as a performer but as a creator and producer as well.
With so many big names, it's easy to overlook the actors who didn't get top billing. They were in just as many great episodes of television, if not more, and the shows we love wouldn’t be the same without their supporting contributions. They also have equally interesting stories.
One actor any classic TV fan has more than likely seen but probably doesn't know is Max Wagner. He most often played background or bit parts which went uncredited and are labeled on IMDb only as “townsman” or “barfly.”
He was an extra in notable episodes like "The City on the Edge of Forever" from Star Trek and "Perchance to Dream" from The Twilight Zone.
In The Rifleman episode "Blood Brother," Wagner plays a small but important role as an injured man, John Stoddard, that Marshal Micah Torrance recognizes from his past. Micah is overcome with hate and even tells Lucas it's okay to let the man die. Eventually, Micah reveals the backstory and confronts Stoddard on his deathbed. It's a powerful story of hate, forgiveness and promises kept.
Wagner immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico as a child in 1912. His family settled in Salinas, California where young Max became friends with a neighbor boy named John Steinbeck. In a 1975 recording made for the Salinas Public Library, Wagner recalled, "We used to play pirate and what have you, you know. John would be the captain." Wagner continued that Steinbeck "was a sharpie all the time — he'd tell stories."
They stayed friends into adulthood and Steinbeck, remembering he and Wagner riding around the neighborhood on horseback, was inspired to write his early novel The Red Pony. Steinbeck went on to write American classics like The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden.
While Wagner never achieved the same level of fame, he never went hungry. Starting in silent films, he worked steadily (sometimes in Spanish) until his death in 1975. Eagle-eyed viewers can spot him in everything from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to Young Frankenstein. His most regular TV work was in Gunsmoke, appearing (uncredited) in 95 episodes of the long-running western.