Skip to main content

Natalie Wood's star power lasted for decades

By Todd Leopold, CNN
updated 1:15 PM EST, Sat November 19, 2011
Natalie Wood was one of a few child actors who made the transition to adult movie star.
Natalie Wood was one of a few child actors who made the transition to adult movie star.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Natalie Wood was major movie star, considered one of world's most beautiful and talented
  • Films include "Rebel Without a Cause," "West Side Story," "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice"
  • Wood drowned in 1981; case was recently reopened

(CNN) -- Natalie Wood was terrified of the water.

As an 11-year-old shooting "The Green Promise," she was thrown off a bridge during a storm scene and nearly drowned. The incident scarred her for life.

Thirty-two years later, Wood died after falling into the ocean off Catalina Island in California.

Wood's life is full of such curiosities. She was that rare child performer to make the transition to adult movie star, but her rise to success was marked by troubled relationships. She had beauty and talent, but she suffered from alcohol abuse and once tried to commit suicide.

And then there's her death, coming just as she was restarting her movie career.

Wood, who died in 1981, is back in the news after police reopened the case involving her drowning at age 43.

Police: Robert Wagner not a suspect in new probe of Natalie Wood's death

The story surrounding Wood's death has long been one of Hollywood's great mysteries. She was making a motion picture comeback in a highly touted science-fiction film, "Brainstorm," and was on her yacht with her husband, Robert Wagner, and her co-star, Christopher Walken.

Aspects of Wood's life have only heightened the speculation. How could someone so young, with a good marriage and revitalized career, die just like that?

Captain describes Wood cover-up story

Wood had been a top star for decades, both a box office draw and Oscar-nominated actress. Among her films were some of the biggest and most influential of the 1950s and '60s, including "Rebel Without a Cause," "West Side Story" and "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice."

"It was as if she had movie star stamped on her birth certificate," Wagner once said.

What happened to Natalie Wood?
Sister: Wagner expressed guilt feelings
Police reopen Natalie Wood investigation
1981: Natalie Wood found dead

Indeed, she seemed fated for stardom from the beginning.

Wood was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko, daughter of Russian immigrants, in San Francisco in 1938. The family later changed their last name to Gurdin.

At age 4, she had a bit part in 1943's "Happy Land" after a production company spotted her in nearby Santa Rosa. Her mother, intent on her daughter making it in the movie business, moved the family to Los Angeles, and young Natalia, renamed Natalie Wood by the studio, soon earned a role in the 1946 Orson Welles film "Tomorrow Is Forever."

Welles was impressed with the scene-stealing youngster. "She's terrifying!" he's said to have described her. (Wood's sister, Lana, also did well, later playing Plenty O'Toole in the James Bond film "Diamonds Are Forever.")

From the late '40s until the mid-'50s, she was one of the most active child performers in the movie business, appearing in such films as 1947's "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" and 1950's "Never a Dull Moment." But for several years she was best known as the Santa Claus-believing child in 1947's "Miracle on 34th Street," opposite Maureen O'Hara and Edmund Gwenn.

She later looked back at her childhood years with pain and a little fury.

"I spent practically all my time in the company of adults. I was very withdrawn, very shy, I did what I was told and I tried not to disappoint anybody. I knew I had a duty to perform, and I was trained to follow orders," she once said. Her relationship with her mother was often bitter.

Glamour to spare

Captain: Can't say Natalie Wood murdered

It wasn't until the groundbreaking "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955), also starring James Dean and Sal Mineo, that she broke through into mature roles. The film featured Wood as the girlfriend of Dean's angst-ridden Jim Stark in the role that made Dean a generational symbol. Wood was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for her performance.

Natalie Wood case reopened
Wood's sister: It's not about money

But it was two 1961 films, the film version of the Broadway smash "West Side Story" and the romantic tragedy "Splendor in the Grass," that made her a top-tier movie star.

In "West Side Story," a version of "Romeo and Juliet" set among New York's gang culture, Wood played Maria, the ill-fated heroine. Though her singing voice was dubbed, her performance earned her good reviews in what became one of the most lauded movies of all time.

"Splendor in the Grass" was no slouch, either; for her performance opposite Warren Beatty, Wood picked up an Oscar nomination for best actress.

The press paid attention. Wood had glamour to spare; she was often touted, along with Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren, as one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood. She also had a photogenic marriage to the hunky Wagner, whom she had married in 1957 when she was 18 and he was 27. The marriage was one of the most celebrated of its time.

"We drove a Corvette across the country. Radio stations would announce we had just passed through, and people would wait for us in every little town," Wood told People magazine in 1976.

But that marriage to Wagner didn't last; the pair divorced in 1962. She married her second husband, agent Richard Gregson, in 1969. The two had a daughter, Natasha.

There were some dark moments -- Wood attempted suicide in 1966 -- but on the whole she gained confidence as an actress in the '60s. (Hardcore psychoanalysis -- she went almost daily for several years -- didn't hurt.) She was named "Star of the Year" by theater owners in 1963 and appeared in a series of popular films, including "Gypsy" (1962), "Sex and the Single Girl" (1963) and "The Great Race" (1965).

Though she turned down some challenging roles, including one in "Bonnie and Clyde," she bounced back with the wife-swapping comedy "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" (1969), for which she earned a reputed $3 million (thanks to shrewdly taking a cut of the profits).

However, except for a handful of roles, "Bob & Carol" also marked the end of a chapter in Wood's film career. She divorced Gregson in 1972 and, having reconciled with Wagner, remarried him later that year.

After almost 30 years, the case of Natalie Wood's drowning is being reopened because of additional information. The "Rebel Without a Cause" actress was found dead on November 29, 1981, at the age of 43. Here are some other celebrities who died under mysterious circumstances. After almost 30 years, the case of Natalie Wood's drowning is being reopened because of additional information. The "Rebel Without a Cause" actress was found dead on November 29, 1981, at the age of 43. Here are some other celebrities who died under mysterious circumstances.
Natalie Wood (died November 29, 1981)
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
Mysterious celebrity deaths Mysterious celebrity deaths

She told People that she had few qualms about putting her career on the back burner.

"If a woman decides to get married and have children, other parts of her life are just going to have to be put aside," she said.

By many accounts, she and Wagner had a stronger marriage the second time around. They had a daughter, Courtney, and stood out as one of Hollywood's power couples. Wood stayed busy with the occasional TV movie.

Troubled production, mysterious end

"Brainstorm" earned coverage not only for Wood's casting -- it was just her third theatrical movie since "Bob & Carol" -- but also for its technological trappings. The director, Douglas Trumbull, was renowned for his special-effects work on "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and the movie was being shot in a special format.

But "Brainstorm" was plagued by production troubles, and rumors started circulating about Wood and Walken's relationship, as TCM.com notes in its writeup of the film. Wagner, who visited the North Carolina set during a break from his TV series "Hart to Hart," had suspicions.

"The bell wasn't exactly clanging, but I was aware that I didn't have her full attention," he wrote in his 2008 memoir. "She was more involved with the movie than she was with her family, and the thought occurred to me that Natalie was being emotionally unfaithful."

Filming continued in Hollywood, and during the Thanksgiving holiday, Wagner and Wood invited Walken to relax on their boat, Splendour, named for "Splendor in the Grass."

The rest is lost in the murky water off the California coast on November 29, 1981, when Wood died. At her funeral, her pallbearers included Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck.

The aftermath affected lives well away from the boat. The studio wanted to shut down filming; Trumbull had to find other financing to complete the movie. Upon its 1983 release, "Brainstorm" was a box office dud, and Trumbull never directed another film.

Dr. Thomas Noguchi, the Los Angeles County coroner, was demoted in 1982 after an investigation by the county board of supervisors over issues with his job, including publicity-seeking after the deaths of celebrities.

Wagner mourned Wood's death for years before marrying Jill St. John, one of Wood's closest friends, in 1990.

Though her image has faded in comparison with some of her contemporaries, such as Taylor or Dean, she's still looked up to by young actresses. Vanessa Hudgens, the "High School Musical" star, calls Wood her "idol."

Wood herself was blunt about her impact.

"Let's face it, acting is not important. Einstein is important. Jonas Salk is important. I know they're not going to send my latest movie up in a time capsule," she once said.

What she desired, apparently, was more out of life. Some time before her death she gave an interview and was asked if she was satisfied. After all, she had two children, a terrific husband, fame, money and beauty. What more could she want?

She didn't hesitate: "I want yesterday."

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT