Wagner was born February 10, 1930, in Detroit, Michigan. He is the son of Hazel Alvera (née Boe), a telephone operator, and Robert John Wagner, Sr., a traveling salesman who worked for the Ford Motor Company. His paternal grandparents were born in Germany. and his maternal grandparents were Norwegian. Wagner has a sister, Mary. He graduated from Saint Monica Catholic High School in 1949.
Wagner became interested in acting, and after an unsuccessful screen test directed by Fred Zinnemann for his film Teresa, Wagner was represented by Albert R. Broccoli as his agent.
He made his film debut in The Happy Years (1950); was signed by agent Henry Willson and put under contract with 20th Century-Fox.
Wagner's first film for Fox was Halls of Montezuma (1951) a World War Two film. Wagner had a support role, with Richard Widmark as the star. The studio then had him perform a similar function in another war movie, The Frogmen (1951), again with Widmark; the cast also included another young male under contract to the studio, Jeffrey Hunter with whom Wagner would often work. Let's Make It Legal (1951) was a comedy where Wagner again supported an older star, in this case Claudette Colbert.
Wagner first gained significant attention with a small but showy part as a shell-shocked soldier in With a Song in My Heart (1952), starring Susan Hayward as Jane Froman.
Fox started to give Wagner better roles. He was the romantic male lead in Stars and Stripes Forever (1952), a biopic about John Philip Sousa starring Clifton Webb. He supported James Cagney and Dan Dailey in John Ford's version of What Price Glory (1952) and supported Webb again in Titanic (1953). He was in a minor Western, The Silver Whip (1953) with Rory Calhoun.
Fox gave Wagner his first starring role in Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953). Reviews were poor but the movie was only the third ever to be shot in CinemaScope and was a big hit.
Also popular was a Western, Broken Lance (1954), where Wagner supported Spencer Tracy for director Edward Dmytryk, appearing as Tracy's son. Fox gave Wagner the lead role in an expensive spectacular, Prince Valiant (1954). While popular, critical reception was poor and Wagner later joked his wig in the movie made him look like Jane Wyman. He was teamed with Jeffrey Hunter in a Western, White Feather (1955).
Wagner was borrowed by Paramount for The Mountain (1956), directed by Dymrtryk, where Wagner was cast as Spencer Tracy's brother, having played his son just two years earlier in the same director's Broken Lance . He received more critical acclaim for the lead in A Kiss Before Dying (1956), from the novel by Ira Levin; it was made for Crown Productions, a company of Darryl F. Zanuck's brother in law (the leads were all under contract to Fox) and released through United Artists.
Back at Fox he was Between Heaven and Hell (1956), a war movie, and The True Story of Jesse James (1957), playing the lead role for director Nicholas Ray (Jeffrey Hunter was Frank). Both movies were box office disappointments and it seemed Wagner was unable to make the transition to top level star.
This appeared confirmed when he was the lead in Stopover Tokyo (1957). In 1959, Wagner disparaged the film:
When I started at Fox in 1950 they were making sixty five pictures a year. Now they're lucky if they make thirty. There was a chance to get some training in B pictures. Then TV struck. Everything went big and they started sticking me into Cinemascope spectacles. One day, smiling Joe Juvenile with no talent was doing a role intended for John Wayne. That was in a dog called Stopover Tokyo. I've really had to work to keep up.
He supported Robert Mitchum in a Korean War movie, The Hunters (1958), and appeared with a number of Fox contractees in a World War Two drama, In Love and War (1958); the latter was a hit.
After a cameo in Mardi Gras (1958), Wagner supported Bing Crosby and Debbie Reynolds in Say One for Me (1959).
Trying to kick start his career, he appeared with his then-wife Natalie Wood in All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960), made for MGM. The film was a flop.
In 1960 Wagner signed with Columbia Pictures for three films, but only two were made; Sail a Crooked Ship (1961) with Ernie Kovacs and The War Lover (1962), opposite Steve McQueen, which was filmed in England.
Wagner's marriage to Wood had broken up and he relocated to Europe. He had a small role in The Longest Day (1962), produced by Daryl Zanuck for Fox. He had a larger part in The Condemned of Altona (1962), a commercial and critical disappointment despite being directed by Vittorio de Sica.
Considerably more popular was The Pink Panther (1963), a massive hit, although Wagner's part was very much in support to those of David Niven, Capucine, Peter Sellers and Claudia Cardinale. It was directed by Blake Edwards, who wanted Wagner for the lead in The Great Race (1965) but Jack L. Warner overruled him.
Back in Hollywood, Wagner had a good support role in another hit, Harper (1966), starring Paul Newman.
Wagner signed with Universal Studios in 1966 starring in the films How I Spent My Summer Vacation, a made-for-TV movie released in the United Kingdom as Deadly Roulette, and Banning (1967). He returned to Italy to make a caper film for MGM, The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1968), but it was not a success.
In 1967, Lew Wasserman of Universal convinced Wagner to make his television series debut in It Takes a Thief (1968-70). While the success of The Pink Panther and Harper began Wagner's comeback, the successful two-and-a-half seasons of his first TV series completed it. In this series, he acted with Fred Astaire, who played his father. Wagner was a longtime friend of Astaire, having gone to school with Astaire's eldest son, Peter. Wagner's performance would earn him an Emmy nomination for Best TV Actor.
During the making of the series he made a film for Universal, the comedy Don't Just Stand There! (1968) with Mary Tyler Moore. It was not a success. More popular was Winning (1969), a racing car drama where Wagner supported Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. He also guest starred in The Name of the Game (1970).
Wagner's friend and agent Albert Broccoli suggested that he audition to play James Bond, but he decided it was not right for him.
Wagner appeared in a pilot for a series that did not eventuate, City Beneath the Sea (1971). The following year he produced and cast himself opposite Bette Davis in the television movie Madame Sin, which was released in foreign markets as a feature film,
He was a regular in the BBC/Universal World War II prisoner-of-war drama Colditz (1972-74) for much of its run. He reunited with McQueen, along with Paul Newman and Faye Dunaway, in the disaster film The Towering Inferno released in the same year. It was a massive hit, although Wagner's part was relatively small.
By the mid-1970s, Wagner's television career was at its peak with the television series Switch (1975-78) opposite Eddie Albert, after re-signing a contract with Universal Studios in 1974. Before Switch, Albert was a childhood hero of Wagner, after he watched the movie Brother Rat along with a few others. The friendship started in the early 1960s, where he also co-starred in a couple of Albert's movies. After the series' end, the two remained friends until Albert's death on May 26, 2005. Wagner spoke at his funeral, and gave a testimonial about his longtime friendship with him.
In partial payment for starring together in the Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg production of the TV movie The Affair, Wagner and Natalie Wood were given a share in three TV series that the producers were developing for ABC. Only one reached the screen, the very successful TV series Charlie's Angels, for which Wagner and Wood had a 50% share, though Wagner was to spend many years in court arguing with Spelling and Goldberg over what was defined as profit.
Wagner and Wood acted with Laurence Olivier in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1976) (as part of Olivier's UK television series Laurence Olivier Presents).
Wagner had a small role in some all-star Universal films, Midway (1976) and The Concorde ... Airport '79 (1979).
Wagner's third successful series was Hart to Hart, which co-starred Stefanie Powers and ran from 1979 to 1984. No one else was seriously considered for the role; George Hamilton had a high profile at the time and was suggested but producer Aaron Spelling said that if he was cast "the audience will resent him as Hart for being that rich. But no one will begrudge RJ [Wagner] a nickel."
During the series run Wagner reprised his old Pink Panther role in Curse of the Pink Panther (1983). He had a support part in I Am the Cheese (1983).
He played an insurance investigator in the TV series Lime Street (1985) but the show did not last long.
Wagner appeared in a TV movie with Audrey Hepburn, Love Among Thieves (1987) and in a mini series with Jacklyn Smith, Windmills of the Gods (1988). For Tom Mankiewicz he played a support part in Delirious (1991). More widely seen was Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993), where Wagner played a producer.
Wagner's film career received a boost after his role in the Austin Powers series of spy spoofs starring Mike Myers. Wagner played Dr. Evil's henchman Number 2 in all three films: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997), Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999) and Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002).
He also had small roles in Wild Things (1998), Crazy in Alabama (1999), Play It to the Bone (2000), Becoming Dick (2001) and Sol Goode (2001).
He also became the host of Fox Movie Channel's Hour of Stars, featuring original television episodes of The 20th Century-Fox Hour (1955), a series which Wagner had appeared on in his early days with the studio.
In 2005, Wagner became the television spokesman for the Senior Lending Network, a reverse mortgage lender and in 2010 he began serving as a spokesman for the Guardian First Funding Group, also a reverse mortgage lender. As of June 2011, Guardian First Funding was acquired by Urban Financial Group, who continue to use Mr. Wagner as their spokesperson.
In 2007, Wagner had a role in the BBC/AMC series Hustle. In season four's premiere, Wagner played a crooked Texan being taken for half a million dollars. As Wagner is considered "a suave icon of American caper television, including It Takes a Thief and Hart to Hart", Robert Glenister (Hustle's fixer, Ash Morgan) commented that "to have one of the icons of that period involved is a great bonus for all of us".
Wagner also played the pivotal role of President James Garfield in the comedy/horror film Netherbeast Incorporated (2007). The role was written with Wagner in mind. He had a recurring role of a rich suitor to the main characters' mother on the sitcom Two and a Half Men. His most recent appearances on the show were in May 2008.
Wagner has guest-starred in ten episodes of NCIS as Anthony DiNozzo, Sr., the father of Anthony DiNozzo, Jr., played by Michael Weatherly. Weatherly had previously appeared as Wagner in the TV movie The Mystery of Natalie Wood.
Wagner was set to star as Charlie in the 2011 reboot of Charlie's Angels, but due to scheduling conflicts, had to exit the project.
In his memoirs, Wagner revealed he has had affairs with Yvonne De Carlo, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Anita Ekberg, Shirley Anne Field, Lori Nelson and Joan Collins. He had a four-year romantic relationship with Barbara Stanwyck after they acted together in the movie Titanic (1953). Because of the age difference – he was 22, she was 45 – they kept the affair secret in order to avoid damage to their careers.
On December 28, 1957, Wagner married 19-year-old actress Natalie Wood. They separated in June 1961 and divorced on April 27, 1962.
While working on location in Europe, Wagner reconnected with an old friend, actress Marion Marshall. In the spring of 1963, after a brief courtship, Wagner, Marshall, and her two children from her marriage to Stanley Donen moved back to America. Wagner and Marshall married on July 22, 1963, in the Bronx Courthouse. Soon after, they had a daughter, Katie Wagner (born May 11, 1964). They divorced on October 14, 1971, after eight years of marriage.
In 1971, Wagner was engaged to Tina Sinatra. In early 1972, Wagner reconnected with Natalie Wood and remarried her on July 16, 1972 after a six-month courtship. Their only child together, Courtney Wagner, was born on March 9, 1974. On November 29, 1981, Natalie Wood drowned near their yacht Splendour while it was moored near Catalina Island; also on board were Wagner, Christopher Walken, who was co-starring with her in the motion picture Brainstorm, and Dennis Davern, a captain. Wagner subsequently became the legal guardian of Wood's daughter Natasha Gregson, then eleven. He is estranged from his former sister-in-law, Lana Wood.
Wagner and actress Jill St. John became an item in February 1982. After eight years together, they married on May 26, 1990. In 1999, an altercation occurred between Wagner's former sister-in-law Lana Wood and St. John, who had both appeared in the 1971 James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever, at a Vanity Fair shoot in Los Angeles. When photographer Annie Leibovitz asked for a picture of St. John and Wood together, St. John was so adamantly opposed to the idea that it reduced Wood to tears. Her publicist, however, said it was he who vetoed the photo: "I know [the Wagner family] would rather not have the current Mrs. Wagner shot with Natalie's sister."
On September 21, 2006, he became a first-time grandfather when Katie Wagner, his daughter with Marion Marshall, gave birth to her son Riley John Wagner-Lewis.
In November 2011, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department reopened its investigation into Natalie Wood's death after the captain of the boat, Dennis Davern, told NBC News that he lied to police during the initial investigation and that a fight between Wood and Wagner had led to her drowning. After nine months of further investigation, Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran amended Wood's death certificate and changed the cause of her death from accidental drowning to "drowning and other undetermined factors". The amended document also states that the circumstances of how Wood ended up in the water are "not clearly established." The police however have stated that Wagner is not a suspect in the case.1953: Jukebox Jury as himself
1963: The Eleventh Hour, episode: "And God Created Vanity"
1968–70: It Takes a Thief as Alexander Mundy
1970–71: The Name of the Game as David Corey
1971: City Beneath the Sea (movie)
1972–74: Colditz as Flight Lieutenant Phil Carrington
1975–78: Switch as Pete T. Ryan
1978: Pearl (mini series)
1979–84: Hart to Hart as Jonathan Hart
1980: The Jacques Cousteau Odyssey narrator (2 episodes)
1981: The Fall Guy as Himself (1 episode)
1984: To Catch a King as Joe Jackson (TV miniseries)
1984: There Must Be a Pony as Ben Nichols
1985: Lime Street (as James Greyson Culver)
1988: Windmills of the Gods (miniseries)
1994: Parallel Lives as the sheriff
1997: Seinfeld, episode: "The Yada Yada" as Dr. Abbot
1999: Fatal Error, as Albert Teal (movie)
2003: Hope & Faith as Jack Fairfield (7 episodes)
2005: The Simpsons, episode: "Goo Goo Gai Pan" as himself
2006: Las Vegas, episode: "Cash Springs Eternal" as Alex Avery
2006: Boston Legal as Barry Goal (2 episodes)
2007: Hustle, season 4 premiere: "As One Flew Out, One Flew In"
2007: Two and a Half Men as Teddy Leopold (5 episodes)
2010–: NCIS as Anthony DiNozzo Sr. (9 episodes)
2012: The League as "Gumpa" Duke, episode: "Bro-Lo El Cordero"
2013: Futurama as himself
2014: Hot in Cleveland as Jim in episode "Bossy Cups"
Wagner, Robert J. (with Scott Eyman) (2008). Pieces of My Heart: A Life. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 978-0-06-137331-2.
Wagner, Robert J. (with Scott Eyman) (2014). You Must Remember This: The Life and Style of Hollywood's Golden Age. New York: Viking. ISBN 978-0-670-02609-8.
Wagner, Robert J. (with Scott Eyman) (2016). I Loved Her in the Movies: Memories of Hollywood's Legendary Actresses. New York: Viking. ISBN 978-0-525-42911-1.