Natalie Wood (1938 - 1981)

Natalie Wood
Natalie Wood

Natalie Wood started her career as a popular child actress in the 1940's. She achieved international fame as a teenager playing opposite James Dean in 'Rebel Without a Cause' in 1955 and then as an adult playing Maria in the hit musical 'West Side Story' in 1961.She was nominated three times for Academy Awards before she was twenty five years old. She died in an unexplained drowning accident in 1981.


She was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko on July 20, 1938 in San Francisco. Her parents were Russian immigrants and Natalie spoke Russian. Natalie had a younger sister who became the actress Lana Wood and an older half sister from her mother's first marriage. All the sisters were raised in the Russian Orthodox Christian Church.

Early Years

Her mother had harboured acting ambitions as a young girl and it is likely that she passed them on to Natalia. Mother and daughter made regular visits to the movies and her mother enrolled her in ballet classes as a tiny child and encouraged her daughter to pursue an acting career.

Child Actress

Natalie was a performer from the outset. Encouraged by her mother, her first appearance on screen was in 1943, aged 4, in 'Happy Land' and although it only lasted for 15 seconds she attracted the attention of director, Irving Pichel, who saw a spark of talent in the lively young child. He remained in contact with Wood's family and when another role came up he asked the mother to bring her daughter to Los Angeles for a screen test. Natalie got the part, opposite Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert in 'Tomorrow Is Forever ' in 1946. The door to Hollywood stardom had opened. In true Hollywood tradition Natalie's name was changed by Bill Goetz, producer of 'Tomorrow Is Forever' to 'Wood', in honour of director, Sam Wood.

Child Star

After appearing in a second Irving Pichel film, Natalie was signed up by her mother with 20th Century Fox for the role which would make her a star. 'Miracle on 34th Street' was made in 1947 and has become a staple movie classic for Christmas. Natalie starred alongside Maureen O'Hara as the little girl who is not sure about the existence of Santa Claus. Within months of the film's release Natalie was included in the ranks of top Hollywood child stars.

For the next few years she had to work hard in her new status of child star. She appeared in over 20 films as a child over a period of 11 years, including 'Father Was a Fullback' and 'Dear Brat' with Fred MacMurray,'No Sad Songs for Me' with Margaret Sullavan and as Bette Davis's daughter in 'The Star'.

She had a great deal of success very young. Many child actors tended to fade when they grew up. Natalie was determined that this would not happen to her. And it didn't.

Teenage Actress

At age 16 in 1955 Natalie appeared in two movies no longer cast as a child but as a young teenager, the forgettable 'One Desire' and the wholly unforgettable 'Rebel Without a Cause', with James Dean, a socially aware movie, one of the first to depict teenagers as individuals in society.

Natalie made a big impact for her mature performance and received a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination. She followed this with a small but crucial role in John Ford's The Searchers (1956), playing the fifteen year old girl kidnapped by Indians. It was one of her least favorite projects, as she felt miscast, but the film was well received and has become a Western classic.

Hollywood Star

As she left her teenage years behind, Natalie found there was increasing competition from her contemporaries for good parts, but in the early 1960's she played some of her most famous roles, which propelled her to the top ranks of Hollywood stardom.

She was nominated for her mature performance as a young girl driven to madness in 'Splendour in the Grass' with Warren Beatty in 1961 and in the same year she appeared in her most famous role, as Maria, in the musical 'West Side Story'. The movie was a major success and garnered Oscars for Best Picture, Best Direction, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress, although there were no nominations for Natalie.

She also received a Best Acress nomination for her performance in 'Love with the Proper Stranger' in 1963 and she continued to appear in successful movies such as 'The Great Race' and 'Inside Daisy Clover' in 1965 and 'This Property is Condemned' in 1966.

In 1969, after a break from movies of three years, Natalie made a triumphant return in the hit comedy 'Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice' with Elliott Gould. The movie was a major hit but it was Natalie's last success on the big screen. During the rest of her career she made several movies which were not successful, such as 'The Candidate' in 1972 and 'Peeper' in 1975, but all her future successes would be on the small screen.

Television Career

Natalie was one of the early performers on the new medium of television. She appeared on Chevron Theater and The Schaefer Century Theater in 1952, and continued to make regular appearances in television series such as 'The Pride of the Family' from 1953-1954 and 'Studio 57' in 1954 and 1957.

After a long break while she raised her young family, she began making television appearances in 1973 in 'The Affair' with Robert Wagner and received good ratings in 1979 for the TV movie 'The Cracker Factory' and the mini-series film 'From Here to Eternity', with Kim Basinger.


Natalie was married three times to two husbands.

She was married to actor Robert Wagner for the first time from 1957 to 1962. In 1969 she married producer Richard Gregson. A year later they had a daughter, Natasha, but separated in 1971 and divorced the following year

Whilst separated from Gregson, Natalie resumed her relationship with Robert Wagner. The couple remarried in July, 1972, three months after her divorce from Gregson. In 1974 their daughter, Courtney Wagner, was born. The marriage ended with Natalie's death.


Natalie Wood died from drowning on November 29, 1981. She was 43 years old.

The mystery surrounding her death remains to this day. She and Robert Wagner were on board their boat, the 'Splendour' with actor friend, Christopher Walken, who was making a film with Natalie. Natalie's body was recovered a mile from the boat An autopsy report revealed that her body and arms were bruised and that she also had an abrasion on her left cheek. The coroner ruled that her death was accidental due to drowning and hypothermia.

Thirty Years Later

In 2011 the case was reopened when the boat's captain, Dennis Davern admitted lying to the police during the original investigation. He now alleged that Wagner was responsible for her death after a drunken quarrel. The result was that the Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner changed the cause of death from accidental drowning to "drowning and other undetermined factors." Robert Wagner has always denied any involvement in Natalie's death and the police have confirmed that he is not a suspect in the case.

Natalie Wood Academy Awards

No Wins:

Three Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Supporting Actress ... Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Best Actress ... Splendor in the Grass (1961)
Best Actress ... Love with the Proper Stranger (1963)

Natalie Wood Filmography

The Moon Is Down
Happy Land
Tomorrow Is Forever
The Bride Wore Boots
Miracle on 34th Street
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
Summer Lightning
Chicken Every Sunday
The Green Promise
Father Was a Fullback
No Sad Songs for Me
Our Very Own
Never a Dull Moment
The Jackpot
Dear Brat
The Blue Veil
The Rose Bowl Story
Just for You
The Star
The Silver Chalice
One Desire
Rebel Without a Cause
The Searchers
A Cry in the Night
The Burning Hills
The Girl He Left Behind
No Sleep Till Dawn
Marjorie Morningstar
Kings Go Forth