Natalie Wood: From Child Star To Unsolved Mystery
American actress Natalie Wood (1938 - 1981), circa 1960. Source: (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Natalie Wood was a famous actress during the mid-1900s who rose to fame at an early age. She is known for her starring roles in Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story. She is also remembered for the mystery surrounding her untimely death in 1981.
Wood was born Natalie Zackharenko in San Francisco, California, on July 20, 1938. Her parents were Russian immigrants who later changed their surname to Gurdin, making Wood’s legal name Natasha Gurdin. She appeared in her first film, Happy Land, in 1943, but did not begin going by the stage name Natalie Wood until her role in the 1946 drama, Tomorrow Is Forever. Her first starring role came at the age of nine when she played the young girl who questions the existence of Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street (1947).
In 1955, she starred with James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause and earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance. This was followed in 1956 by The Searchers, in which she worked alongside John Wayne. As she got older, Natalie Wood became famous not only for her movies, but also for her relationships with other stars, including Dennis Hopper, Nicky Hilton, and Elvis Presley. She married for the first time in 1957, at the age of eighteen, to actor Robert Wagner. However, the marriage was short-lived, and the couple divorced in 1962.
Her career was unhampered by her personal drama and she continued to acquire film credits and was considered one of Hollywood’s most sought-after stars. In 1961, she starred opposite Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass. The same year, she played Maria in West Side Story, an urban adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. She went on to star in Gypsy (1962), Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), and Sex and the Single Girl (1964). However, these films were followed by several box-office fails, including the 1965 drama Inside Daisy Clover.
In 1966, after years of therapy, Wood attempted to take her own life through a drug overdose. She took a three-year break from acting as part of her recovery. In 1969, she not only returned to the big screen with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) but also gave marriage a second try. This time, she married writer and producer Richard Gregson. The following year, she gave birth to their daughter, Natasha. This marriage didn’t last either and, in 1972, she divorced Gregson and remarried Wagner. The third time was a charm and she stayed married to Wagner until her death in 1981. Their daughter, Courtney, was born in 1974.
Wood only had a few more roles after her third marriage, including the television movie Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1976) and the miniseries From Here to Eternity (1979). Her final film was a science fiction thriller called Brainstorm (1981) in which she starred with Christopher Walken. In November 1981, she was vacationing aboard a yacht off the coast of Santa Catalina Island, California, along with Walken and her husband. All three actors had been drinking and the couple allegedly argued over Wood’s relationship with Walken. Later that night, Wood was reported missing. The next morning, her body was discovered floating near a dinghy from the yacht.
At the time, Wood’s death was ruled an accidental drowning, but this explanation didn’t sit well with some of her family members. The captain of the yacht later admitted he believed Wagner to be responsible for Wood’s death. There were also alleged reports of other boaters hearing a woman crying for help that night. The case was reopened in November 2011; however, Wagner was not named as an official suspect. In June 2012, the official cause of death on the death certificate was changed from “accident” to “undetermined.” In early 2018, Wagner was named as a person of interest in the investigation. No further conclusions have been reached and the true cause of Wood’s death remains a mystery.
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