Natalie Wood began her Hollywood career as a child actor before going on to star in films alongside legendary actors like James Dean, Gregory Peck, and Warren Beatty. In 1981, Wood, 43, drowned in the Pacific Ocean under mysterious circumstances.
This is her story.
Wood’s parents were Russian immigrants who met in America and married in 1938, five months before she was born. Her birth name was Natalie Zacharenko, but her last name was changed to Wood by RKO executives David Lewis and William Goetz after she began acting in an effort to make her more appealing to English-speaking audiences.
In 1942, Woods’ parents moved to Santa Rosa, California, where 4-year-old Natalie was noticed by crew members working on a film shoot. Before she was even 5, Wood appeared in her first movie, “Happy Land,” in which she had an uncredited, 15-second scene.
Though her role was brief, director Irving Pichel took an interest in the young girl, and advised her parents over the next two years about roles for which Wood might be able to audition. Her big break came when she was 7-years-old, when Pichel asked Wood’s mother to bring her to Los Angeles for a screen test. Wood’s mother did more than just bring her down, she packed up her family and moved them all to L.A.
Wood won the role — a World War II German orphan in “Tomorrow Is Forever,” starring Orson Welles. Welles would later describe Wood as so good, “she was terrifying,” in a documentary about the movie star.
In one scene, Wood needed to cry, but after she couldn’t cry on command, her mother reportedly ripped apart a butterfly right in front of her daughter, bringing on the tears. Wood acted in two more movies before she landed her best-known childhood role in “Miracle on 34th Street.” The film became a Christmas classic, and the year it was released, Macy’s invited Wood to appear in its annual Thanksgiving Day parade.
Wood would appear in more than 20 films as a child, along with episodes of the television series “Kraft Theatre” and “Chevron Theatre.”
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Wood’s fame didn’t end when she became a teenager. She received roles in several TV shows and major films. She was able to cement a successful transition from child to teen actor when she was cast alongside James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause,” for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
While her fame was on an upward trajectory, her personal life was not as pleasant. In 1957, at age 19, she married actor Robert Wagner, but the couple divorced in 1962, a year after Wood starred in “West Side Story.” After her divorce, Wood reportedly dated Warren Beatty, Michael Caine, and David Niven Jr. before getting engaged to Venezuelan shoe manufacturer Ladislav Blatnik. The two broke off their engagement in 1965. Four years later, Wood married British producer Richard Gregson after the pair dated for three years. The couple had a daughter in 1970, and divorced two years later.
Prior to her divorce being finalized, Wood and her first husband, Robert Wagner, reconciled and remarried on July 16, 1972. Their daughter was born in 1974.
Throughout the 1960s, Wood seemed to be on top of the world, with numerous movie hits and two more Academy Award nominations. She became the youngest woman (25) at the time to receive three nominations. Wood also began making comedies, including “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” but she didn’t capitalize on her success, instead semi-retiring after becoming pregnant with her first daughter.
Wood made a few more movies and television appearances in the 1970s, with no one knowing that “The Memory of Eva Ryker,” released in 1980, would be her last completed production.
In 1981, Wood began filming “Brainstorm” alongside Christopher Walken. Wood, her husband, Walken, and the captain of Wagner’s yacht, Dennis Davern, went out for a boat ride on the Pacific Ocean to take a break from production on November 28. The next morning — at around 8 a.m. on November 29 — Wood’s body was recovered about a mile away from the boat, along with a small inflatable dinghy on the beach nearby.
Wagner initially told police that Wood wasn’t with him when he went to bed that night. He also initially denied arguing with Wood the night before her death, but eventually admitted to it in his memoir “Pieces of My Heart.”
An autopsy revealed that Wood had bruises on her body and arms, a cut on her left cheek, and a blood alcohol content of 0.14%. She also had traces of a motion-sickness pill and painkiller in her system. Though she had various injuries, it couldn’t be determined when she received them. L.A. County Coroner Thomas Noguchi suggested Wood was drinking and slipped while trying to get back onto the dinghy, but her younger sister Lana dismissed the possibility. Wood had been afraid of water her entire life, Lana said, and would never have gotten onto the dinghy by herself.
The Los Angeles Times reported that two witnesses on a nearby boat told police they heard a woman scream for help on the night Wood died.
Because “Brainstorm” hadn’t completed filming, a stand-in and sound-alikes were used to replace Wood in remaining scenes. The film was released in 1983 with a dedication to Wood in the closing credits.
In November 2011, the investigation into Wood’s death was reopened, after Davern admitted that he had lied to police in 1981. At the time, he said Wood and Wagner had been arguing the night she died. Davern said that Wagner became jealous and angry when he thought Wood was flirting with Walken. Davern at the time also said Wagner hadn’t let him turn on the boat’s search lights or call authorities to report Wood missing.
Walken has never been considered a suspect in Wood’s death.
In 2012, L.A. County Chief Coroner Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran changed Wood’s official cause of death from accidental drowning to “drowning and other undetermined factors,” adding that it was “not clearly established” how Wood ended up in the water.
Eight years later, a former intern under Noguchi, who was now a medical doctor, said that Wood’s bruises were substantial and could be a match for someone who had been thrown from a boat, an observation he said he made to Noguchi.
In 2018, Wagner was named a person of interest in Wood’s death, with police saying he was the last person to see her alive. Police also said it was possible Wood had been assaulted before she went into the water and drowned.
As of May 2023, the story of Wood’s death remains frustratingly incomplete.
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