Lyle Waggoner's name is attached to nearly every hit out of Hollywood, from "Breaking Bad" to "Avatar," from "The Hangover" to "Gran Torino." However, you won't find the veteran actor's name in the cast credits. Instead, it's scattered all over the set.
Waggoner is the owner of Star Waggons, a company of 800 trailers built to accommodate every conceivable need on location. Revenues in 2015 were somewhere around $17 million, up 18 percent in a year.
Movie trailers have come a long way. "When I first started, we had a plywood box with a little bed in it, a mirror and a light bulb over the top," the 80-year-old Waggoner said, sitting inside a massive trailer decked like out a modern hotel room.
A lifelong entrepreneur, Waggoner's strange path to manufacturing success started in St. Louis, where he worked as a door-to-door salesman. Customers kept telling him, "You should be an actor." So he moved to Los Angeles to study acting and admits he got very lucky, very quickly. He landed a spot on "The Carol Burnett Show," and later on "Wonder Woman." "I wanted to have my own business, and being an actor is really having your own business," he said. "You're the product, you're the salesperson."
While working on "Wonder Woman," Waggoner's contract allowed him to have a trailer on location. "They gave me a motor home," he said. "This was a big improvement." He found out the motor home was being rented from a local resident. Waggoner's entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. He went to the show's transportation coordinator and asked, "If I had a motor home, would you rent it from me?" The coordinator said yes, "So I went out and bought one."
Soon Waggoner was buying a fleet of motor homes and renting them out to studios all over town, using his star power to sway loan officers and paycheck as collateral to get more money for more vehicles. "I didn't know if this was going to work or not," he said, "but that's what entrepreneurs do, they take a risk."
Star Waggons started paying off almost immediately. For every $50,000 motor home Waggoner bought, his monthly payment was around $400. "I was renting them for $400 or $500 a week." Waggoner ended up with 90 motor homes, and a business he originally envisioned as a "backup" to acting soon had a starring role. "There was some pushback from the fact that I was an actor," Waggoner said of how studios reacted to his new business venture. "But if they didn't want me in there, why didn't they do it?"
Then came a huge decision. In 1988, Waggoner decided to stop buying motor homes and start building trailers instead. The RV business in Los Angeles had taken a downturn, so there was plenty of manufacturing talent available. Waggoner figured trailers would be better than motor homes because they could be towed, they didn't have transmissions, which needed fixing. Also, building his own trailers allowed Waggoner to customize them for actors. "You needed a makeup area, you needed a full-length mirror."
His goal: Make the best trailers in Hollywood.
Fast-forward 28 years, and Star Waggons manufactures more than two dozen types of trailers for all kinds of artists — makeup, wardrobe, productions, even classrooms for child actors. The trailers cost as much as $2 million to make and rent for up to $10,000 a week, though most are built for between $80,000 and $200,000.
These days, the company is run by Waggoner's two sons, Beau and Jason, with Jason's wife, Molly, as chief designer. The three joke that sometimes their family venture is a bit of a family feud. "Jason and Beau have very different personalities, a little Oscar and Felix," said Molly. "It's good enough for a reality show." Throughout it all, Lyle kept up his acting career up to 2005, according to imdb.com, when he played Jack on one episode of "The War at Home" TV series.
"I started 27 years ago with my father," said Beau. "My father didn't put me into a position, I had to earn the position." Beau started out washing trailers, then repairing them, "and then a position came open where I was in charge of sanitation, which I did for seven years, which was pretty interesting ... my nickname was Ty-D-Beau." Beau began studying architecture and basically taught himself design, and he eventually became head of manufacturing, a job he attacks with passion.
Jason didn't start out at Star Waggons. His career took him into the oil business and banking, before coming to work for his dad in 2002. He recommends anyone going into a family business spend time outside of it first. "It gives you a completely different perspective, and then you can bring things in from the outside that you didn't have."
At first, Molly Waggoner was not impressed with the trailer interiors at her husband's company. "I was thinking, this is where we stay when we go camping, it felt very outdated." Her job was to transform Star Waggons into something a celebrity would feel at home in — installing 15-foot long white couches (which somehow stay clean), special sconces and lamps, frameless glass shower doors ("that's never been done before").
Everyone from J-Lo to Will Smith has slept in a Star Waggon. "This needs to feel like the way they live," Molly said. Her husband, Jason, added, "If they live in a $10 million house, they don't want to go to a $25,000 trailer."
"We found a big paper bag full of foam rubber breast enhancements ... falsies," said Lyle Waggoner of one trailer returned after a shoot. "For about a week, everybody in the company had a nice bustline. Even the dog had one on his head." He recalls that Lou Ferrigno's trailer from "The Incredible Hulk" came back with green body paint all over the shower. A professional basketball player needed a higher toilet seat, "and we had to do that for him." Teri Hatcher recommended a redesign for a trailer she planned to use, and Waggoner was at first skeptical, figuring what could she possibly know? "I said, 'Go ahead, whatever makes the artist happy,' " he said with a laugh, "so she came back with a really great design ... it worked out terrific!"
Jason Waggoner said the craziest request Star Waggons has ever received came from an unnamed star who wanted a lap pool inside his trailer. "I think they were testing us," he said. However, his team went to work and designed a trailer with an indoor pool. "Then we got a call, 'No, no, no, they're not going to need the swimming pool this time," Jason said. "It's good to know that we have the design for it, just in case."
This being Hollywood, you never know when that pool design will come in handy. Making artists happy is what Star Waggons strives for, and it's provided a Hollywood ending for an actor who always preferred working with his hands to working on stage. Lyle Waggoner is most pleased that he created something he has successfully passed on to his children. "They took it to another level that I never thought I would see Star Waggons at," Lyle Waggoner said. "They do all the work, and they send us a check."