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The Extraordinary Life and Tragic Death of Natalie Wood

Learn all about the 'West Side Story' star, the joys and the traumas

American actress Natalie Wood might just be one of the country’s biggest mysteries. From her very fast rise to fame starting at age four to her unfortunate (and suspicious) death at 43, her story has certainly captured people’s attention. And we’ve uncovered everything you need to know about three-time OscarAward-nominated actress Natalie Wood. 

For those who aren’t familiar with Natalie Wood, she was a Hollywood actress with a career that spanned from 1943 to 1981. Her most notable titles include Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Splendor in the Grass (1961), West Side Story (1961) and Love with the Proper Stranger (1964). 

The last film featuring Wood was 1983’s Brainstorm, released two years following her death under “mysterious circumstances.”

If you want to know more about her death, the movies she worked on and how she broke into Hollywood, keep scrolling. 

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The early life of Natalie Wood 

Natalie Wood in 1946
Natalie Wood in 1946Donaldson Collection / Contributor/Getty

The actress was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko and entered the world on July 20, 1938 in San Francisco, California. Shortly after her birth, Wood’s parents changed their last name to Gurdin, because they believed Zakharenko was too difficult to pronounce; Wood was also going by Natasha (a Natalia nickname) at that time.   

Once she got into acting, though, her name was changed again to Natalie Wood. RKO executive William Goetz decided that it sounded more appealing to American audiences, and it simultaneously honored his friend Sam Wood. 

She started acting at age four, with her first role being the 1943 film The Moon is Down. After that, the starlet had a 15-second scene in Happy Land (1943); there, she met director Irving Pichel, who loved the little girl so much that he decided to keep in touch with the Wood family over the next two years in the hopes of finding the perfect role for Natalie. 

The actress and Claudette Colbert in 1946
Natalie Wood and Claudette Colbert in 1946Hulton Archive / Stringer/Getty

Then it happened! In 1946, Wood was in Tomorrow is Forever, which was her first featured role, starring opposite Orson Welles, Claudette Colbert and George Brent

Miracle on 34th Street

Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood and Maureen O'Hara in 'Miracle On 34th Street' (1947)
Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood and Maureen O’Hara in ‘Miracle On 34th Street’ (1947) Silver Screen Collection / Contributor/Getty

Who could ever forget Natalie’s adorable portrayal of Susan Walker in the classic 1947 Christmas movie, Miracle 34th on Street

“I have been the mother to almost 40 children in movies, but I have always had a special place in my heart for little Natalie,” Wood’s costar, Maureen O’Hara, said. “She always called me Mamma Maureen, and I called her Natasha, the name her parents had given her.”

Miracle of 34th Street won three Oscars, two Golden Globes and earned Wood the title of  “Most Exciting Juvenile Motion Picture Star of the Year” by Parents magazine.  

MUST READ: Miracle on 34th Street’: 10 Little-Known Facts About the Christmas Classic

Natalie Wood as a teenager 

The actress in 1960
Natalie Wood in 1950Herbert Dorfman/Corbis/Getty

Wood did not live the typical life of a teenager as she spent those years guest starring on such shows as  The Pride of the Family (1953-1954), The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse (1954), Mayor of the Town (1954) and Max Liebman Spectaculars (1955). 

Max Liebman was the last thing Wood worked on before being cast as Judy in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) alongside James Dean. However, the casting process wasn’t easy, because director Nicholas Ray still saw Wood as a naive child, not someone who could cause a ruckus. 

Until Wood got in a car accident, with the police officer reportedly calling her a “god–n juvenile delinquent.” At that point Wood asked the police to call Ray so she could tell him: “Did you hear what he called me, Nick? He called me a god–n juvenile delinquent! Now, do I get the part?”

James Dean and the actress in 'Rebel Without A Cause' (1955)
James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without A Cause (1955) Warner Bros. / Handout/Getty

Finally, Ray agreed, writing a memo to Warner Brothers that read,  “We just spent three days testing 32 kids. There is only one girl who has shown the capacity to play Judy, and she is Natalie Wood.” 

He was right because, in the end, Wood earned an Oscar nomination in 1956 in the Best Actress in a Supporting Role category for her work on the film.

Ray and Wood also entered into a romantic relationship during the production of Rebel Without a Cause. She was 16 and he was 44.

The West Side Story Era

Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood in 'West Side Story' (1961)
Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood in ‘West Side Story’ (1961) Sunset Boulevard / Contributor/Getty

West Side Story was the movie that had it all: Singing, dancing, star-crossed lovers and even Rita Moreno. But at the center of the 1961 film was Wood. 

She brought the role of Maria to life in this musical inspired by Romeo and Juliet and based on the Broadway show of the same name. However, nowadays, people are skeptical about Wood’s performance in this film because she was of Russian and Ukrainian descent, and had to wear a lot of dark makeup to appear more Puerto Rican. Actors like Moreno agreed. 

Rita Moreno and Natalie Wood in 'West Side Story' (1961)
Rita Moreno and Natalie Wood in ‘West Side Story’ (1961) Archive Photos / Stringer/Getty

“I don’t think she [Wood] was anything like the Maria that I envisioned in my head,” Moreno said in 2021. “I think a great deal had to do with the fact that she was not Puerto Rican.”

Still, Wood’s performance was legendary and certainly left a mark on the film industry.  

MUST READ: Original ‘West Side Story’ Cast: See the Stars from the 1961 Classic Then and Now

The later life of Natalie Wood

The actress in 1960
Natalie Wood in 1960Silver Screen Collection / Contributor/Getty

Wood continued acting after West Side Story, performing in films like Gypsy (1962), Inside Daisy Clover (1965), The Great Race (1965), Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), Pepper (1975), The Last Married Couple in America (1980) and Willing & Phil (1980). She was also in Brainstorm in 1983, but that was, as noted, released after her death. 

Long before that, in 1965, Wood actually tried to take her own life by overdosing on sleeping pills. She was reportedly very lonely at the time and didn’t know where life was going to take her.  Wood was rushed to the hospital later that night and yet, just a couple of days later, she went back to work on The Great Race.

The personal life of Natalie Wood

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood (1957)
Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood (1957) Jack Albin/Staff/Getty

Wood was married three times, to two different men. Her first marriage was to actor Robert Wagner in 1957. They then separated on 1961 and divorced in 1962. 

After that, Wood dated Warren Beatty, Arthur Loew Jr and Ladislav Blatnik before marrying British talent agent Richard Gregson in 1969. She had one child with him prior to the marriage ending in divorce in April 1972 following his affair with Wood’s secretary. 

After that, she reconnected with Wagner at a party, the pair remarrying in July 1972 and remaining together until her death in 1981. They had one child in 1974, and three stepchildren between them, one from Wood’s marriage to Gregson and two from Wagner’s previous marriage to actress Marion Marshall.

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Wood and the #metoo movement

In 2001, author Suzanne Finstad released a biography on Wood entitled Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography, claiming she was brutally assaulted by Kirk Douglas, someone Wood had looked up to.

She was reportedly physically injured, but never called the police and would shutter every time she heard his name. At the time of the reported assault, Wood was was 16 and Douglas was in his late 30’s. 

Natalie Wood at age 16 (1954)
Natalie Wood at age 16 (1954) John Kobal Foundation / Contributor/Getty

Wood’s sister Lana later confirmed the rumors in her book Little Sister: My Investigation Into the Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood — after feeling comfortable to do so because of the #metoo movement. She also said that the incident had occurred at the Chateau Marmont Hotel during an audition, and it went on “for hours.” 

“I remember that Natalie looked especially beautiful when Mom and I dropped her off that night at the Chateau Marmont entrance,” Lana wrote. The book was also where Lana confirmed it was Douglas who sexually assaulted Natalie. “It seemed like a long time passed before Natalie got back into the car and woke me up when she slammed the door shut.

“She looked awful. She was very disheveled and very upset, and she and Mom started urgently whispering to each other. I couldn’t really hear them or make out what they were saying. Something bad had apparently happened to my sister, but whatever it was, I was apparently too young to be told about it.” 

The actress and Lana Wood in 1956
Natalie and Lana Wood in 1956Getty Images / Staff/Getty

Kirk Douglas died in 2020. and was never charged.

The death of Natalie Wood

Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood in character during the making of 1983’s Brainstorm
Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood in character during the making of 1983’s BrainstormGetty

On November 29, 1981, Wood passed away while on a weekend boat trip with husband Wagner, actor Christopher Walken and the boat’s captain, Dennis Davern. It was reported that Wood drowned, but the details surrounding her death are still murky, especially since Wood famously said she hated open water. 

I’ve always been terrified, still am, of water, dark water, seawater,” Wood said. 

The actress in 1980
Natalie Wood in 1980Images Press / Contributor/Getty

Authorities have never been able to determine how Wood got in the water, and Wagner reportedly told police Wood was not with him when he went to bed. 

After the authorities found Wood floating off of the coast of Catalina Island, they saw that she was covered with bruises and cuts. It was eventually revealed that she had ingested a combination of alcohol, motion sickness pills and painkillers shortly before her death.

Witnesses claimed that they heard a woman scream for help in the middle of the night and that they heard Wagner and Wood aggressively arguing hours before she supposedly drowned. 

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood (1980)
Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood (1980) MediaPunch / Contributor/Getty

I blame myself,” Nicholas Ray told Closer in 2018. “Why wasn’t I there? I would have done anything to protect her. Anything. I would have given my life for hers, because that’s the way we were.”

The authorities originally ruled the death an accident, but reopened the case in 2011 after Davern went on record saying he lied to the police when they questioned him. He then claimed that Wood was flirting with Walken, and Wagner really didn’t like it. A few hours after that supposed fight, Wagner reportedly told Davern not to turn on the searchlights and refused to let him inform authorities about Wood’s disappearance. 

This led to the coroner changing Wood’s death report and delving further into the case. Then, in 2013, investigators determined Wood’s bruises were fitting for someone who was thrown off of a boat and, in 2018, Wagner was named an official person of interest in her death. However, he has yet to be charged, and her case remains unsolved. 

The actress in 1981
Natalie Wood in 1981Barry King / Contributor/Getty

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