Popular local actor T. Max Graham dies

T. Max Graham, one of Kansas City’s most popular actors, died Thursday after a struggle with cancer.

Graham, who once told The Star that he was raised on a farm in eastern Jackson County and hit the road as a traveling kitchen gadget salesman after high school, was a character actor who excelled at comedy but who could also handle dramatic roles.

He once said he began his acting career at a small theater company in San Francisco in 1968.

Graham also spent time in Los Angeles in the late ’60s and ’70s and made his film debut in “Angel Unchained,” a 1970 biker film in which he played a gang member named Magician. He was credited as Neil Moran, which was his actual name. His most noteworthy film appearance early in his career was as the factory manager in David Lynch’s first feature film, “Eraserhead.”

It was after he settled in Kansas City in the 1980s that he came into his own as an actor. He performed at most of the professional theaters in town but became a local star appearing in comedies at the city’s two dinner theaters at the time — Tiffany’s Attic and the Waldo Astoria. Often he was paired with Vicki Oleson, a gifted comedienne whose small physical stature stood in sharp contrast to Graham’s beefy appearance.

Even after relocating in Kansas City, Graham worked frequently in feature films, miniseries and TV movies, often playing sheriffs and police chiefs. In one of his most memorable supporting performances, he played a preacher with a large appetite in director Ang Lee’s 1999 border wars epic, “Ride With the Devil,” which was shot on locations in the Kansas City region.

In recent years, Graham was tapped for stage roles that allowed him to show off his abilities as a dramatic actor. In 2009, he played the title role in “Galileo,” a drama about the Italian astronomer persecuted by the church for his contention that the earth was not the center of the universe. In 2008 he played an intellectual school master in “Translations,” which depicted the cultural clash when the British army began anglicizing place names in northern Ireland.

Dennis Hennessy, co-owner of the New Theatre, said there was a time when Graham’s name on the marquee was enough to sell out shows.

“Max was really one of a kind,” Hennessy said. “In the good old days of Tiffany’s Attic, he was a headliner. People would come just to see him. He was a terrific actor. And it’s too bad he didn’t get to do more dramatic roles.”

The visitation will be 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Speaks Suburban Chapel, near 39th and Missouri 291 in Independence. The service will be there at 10 a.m. Thursday.