About Natalia Nikolaevna Wagner (Zakharenko)
As a child star who won acclaim for her role in Miracle on 34th Street when she was only nine, Natalie Wood easily moved into teenage and adult leading roles in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Splendor in the Grass (1961), West Side Story (1961) and Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), earning Academy nominations for three of the films. She was one of Hollywood’s brightest stars and a legend both on and off the silver screen.
She was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko (Russian: Наталья Николаевна Захаренко) on July 20, 1938 to Russian American immigrants Maria Stepanova (née Zudilova) and Nikolai Zacharenko. Her father was born in Vladivostok and the family fled Russia during the Revolution. He was sent to live with relatives in Canada, but later moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a day laborer and carpenter. Wood's mother originally came from Siberia, but grew up in the Chinese city of Harbin.
Shortly after her birth in San Francisco, her family moved to nearby Sonoma County, and lived in Santa Rosa, California, where Wood was noticed during a film shoot in downtown Santa Rosa. Her mother soon moved the family to Los Angeles and pursued a career for her daughter. Wood had one younger sister, Svetlana Zakharenko (better known as Lana Wood), who also became an actress and later, notably, a Bond girl. She and Lana have an older half sister, Olga Viriapaeff. Though Natalie had been born "Natalia Zakharenko," her father later changed the family name to "Gurdin" and Natalie was often known as "Natasha," the diminutive of Natalia. Hollywood would later change her name to "Natalie Wood," a name she really never cared for.
Wood made her film debut a few weeks before turning five, in a fifteen-second scene in the film Happy Land (1943). Despite the brief part, she attracted the notice of the director, Irving Pichel, who remained in touch with her family for two years until another role came up. The director phoned Natasha's mother and asked her to bring Natasha down to Los Angeles for a screen test. Her mother became so excited at the possibilities, she overreacted and "packed the whole family off to Los Angeles to live," writes Harris. Her husband opposed the whole idea, but his wife's "overpowering ambition to make Natasha a star" took priority.
Wood, then seven years old, got the part and played a German orphan opposite Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert in Tomorrow Is Forever. Welles later said that Wood was a born professional, "so good, she was terrifying". After doing another film directed by Pichel, her mother signed her to a role with 20th Century Fox studio for her first major role, the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947), which made her one of the top child stars in Hollywood. Within a few months after the film's release she was so popular that Macy's invited her to appear in the store's annual Thanksgiving Day parade.
She would eventually appear in over 20 films as a child, appearing opposite such stars as Gene Tierney, James Stewart, Maureen O'Hara, Bette Davis and Bing Crosby. As a child actor, her formal education took place on the studio lots wherever she was acting. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed her in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), said that "In all my years in the business, I never met a smarter moppet."
Wood successfully made the transition from child star to ingenue at age 16 when she co-starred with James Dean and Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray's film about teenage rebellion. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She followed this with a small but crucial role in John Ford's western The Searchers which starred John Wayne and also featured Wood's sister, Lana, who played a younger version of her character in the film's earlier scenes. She graduated from Van Nuys High School in 1956.
Signed to Warner Brothers, Wood was kept busy during the remainder of the decade in many 'girlfriend' roles that she found unsatisfying. The studio cast her in two films opposite Tab Hunter, hoping to turn the duo into a box office draw that never materialized. Among the other films made at this time were 1958's Kings Go Forth and Marjorie Morningstar. As Marjorie Morningstar, she played the role of a young Jewish girl in New York City, who has to deal with the social and religious expectations of her family, as she tries to forge her own path and separate identity.
After appearing in the box office flop All the Fine Young Cannibals, Wood's career was salvaged by her casting in director Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass (1961) opposite Warren Beatty, which earned Wood Best Actress Nominations at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and BAFTA Awards. Also in 1961 Wood played Maria in the Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise musical West Side Story which was a major box office and critical success, however, the singing parts were sung by Marni Nixon. Wood did sing when she starred in the 1962 film, Gypsy. She co-starred in the slapstick comedy The Great Race (1965), with Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Peter Falk. Wood then received her third Academy Award nomination and another Golden Globe award in 1964 for Love with the Proper Stranger, opposite Steve McQueen.
Although many of Wood's films were commercially profitable, her acting was criticized at times. In 1966 she won the Harvard Lampoon Worst Actress of the Year Award. She was the first performer in the award's history to accept it in person and the Harvard Crimson wrote she was "quite a good sport." Conversely, director Sydney Pollack said "When she was right for the part, there was no one better. She was a damn good actress." Other notable films she starred in were Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property Is Condemned (1966), both of which co-starred Robert Redford and brought subsequent Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress. In both films, which were set during the Great Depression, Wood played small-town teens with big dreams. After the release of the films, Wood suffered an emotional breakdown and sought professional therapy. During this time, she turned down the Faye Dunaway role in Bonnie and Clyde because she didn't want to be separated from her analyst.
After three years away from acting, Wood played a swinger in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), a comedy about sexual liberation. The film was one of the top ten box office hits of the year, and Wood received ten percent of the film's profits. After becoming pregnant with her first child, Natasha Gregson, in 1970, she went into semi-retirement and only acted in four more theatrical films during the remainder of her life. She appeared as herself in The Candidate (1972), reuniting her for a third time with Robert Redford. She also reunited on the screen with Robert Wagner in The Affair (1973), a television adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1976) and made cameo appearances on his shows Switch in 1978 as "Bubble Bath Girl" and Hart to Hart in 1979 as "Movie Star". During the last two years of her life, Wood began to work more frequently as her daughters reached school age.
Among the film roles Wood turned down during her career hiatus went to Ali MacGraw in Goodbye, Columbus, Mia Farrow in The Great Gatsby and Faye Dunaway in The Towering Inferno. Instead, Wood chose to star in misfires like the disaster film Meteor (1979) with Sean Connery and the sex comedy The Last Married Couple in America (1980). She found more success in television, receiving high ratings and critical acclaim in 1979 for The Cracker Factory and especially the miniseries film From Here to Eternity with Kim Basinger and William Devane. Wood's performance in the latter won her a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in 1980. Later that year, she starred in The Memory of Eva Ryker which proved to be her last completed production.
At the time of her death, Wood was filming the sci-fi film Brainstorm (1983), co-starring Christopher Walken and directed by Douglas Trumbull. She was also scheduled to star in a theatrical production of Anastasia and in a film called Country of the Heart, playing a terminally ill writer who has an affair with a teenager, to be played by Timothy Hutton. Due to her untimely death, both of the latter projects were canceled and the ending of Brainstorm had to be re-written. A stand-in and sound-a-likes were used to replace Wood for some of her critical scenes. The film was released posthumously on September 30, 1983, and was dedicated to her in the closing credits.
She appeared in 56 films for cinema and television. Following her death, Time magazine noted that although critical praise for Wood had been sparse throughout her career, "she always had work."
Wood's two marriages to actor Robert Wagner were highly publicized. Wood said she had a crush on Wagner since she was a child and on her 18th birthday she went on a studio-arranged date with the 26-year old actor. They married a year later on December 28, 1957, which met with great protest from Wood's mother. Wood and Wagner separated in June 1961 and divorced in April 1962.
On May 30, 1969, Wood married British producer Richard Gregson. The couple dated for two and a half years prior to their marriage, while Gregson waited for his divorce to be finalized. They had a daughter, Natasha Gregson (born September 29, 1970). They separated in August 1971 after Wood overheard an inappropriate telephone conversation between her secretary and Gregson. The split also marked a brief estrangement between Wood and her family, when mother Maria and sister Lana told her to reconcile with Gregson for the sake of her newborn child. She filed for divorce, and it was finalized in April 1972.
In early 1972, Wood resumed her relationship with Wagner. The couple remarried on July 16, 1972, just five months after reconciling and only three months after she divorced Gregson. Their daughter, Courtney Wagner, was born on March 9, 1974. They remained married until Wood's death seven years later on November 29, 1981.
The day after Thanksgiving, Wood, Wagner and Christopher Walken went to Catalina Island for the weekend and on the night of November 28, the Wagners' yacht (Splendour) was anchored in Isthmus Cove. Also on board was the boat's skipper, Dennis Davern, who had worked for the couple for many years. The official theory is that Wood either tried to leave the yacht or to secure a dinghy from banging against the hull when she accidentally slipped and fell overboard. When her body was found, she was wearing a down jacket, nightgown, and socks. A woman on a nearby yacht said she heard calls for help at around midnight. The cries lasted for about 15 minutes and were answered by someone else who said, "Take it easy. We'll be over to get you". "It was laid back", the witness recalled. "There was no urgency or immediacy in their shouts". There was much partying going on in the area, though, and while it has never been proven that the woman calling for help was, indeed, Natalie Wood, no other person ever has been identified or come forward as having called out for help on that night. An investigation by Los Angeles County coroner Thomas Noguchi resulted in an official verdict of accidental drowning. Noguchi concluded Wood had drunk "seven or eight" glasses of wine and was intoxicated when she died. There were marks and bruises on her body which Noguchi speculated could have been received as a result of her fall. Noguchi later wrote that had Wood not been intoxicated, she likely would have realized her heavy down-filled coat and wool sweater were pulling her underwater and would have removed them. Noguchi also wrote that he found Wood's fingernail scratches on the side of the rubber dinghy indicating she was trying to get in. Wood was 43 at the time of her death and is buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery. On March 11, 2010 Wood's sister Lana Wood decided to re-open the case of her death.
For her contribution to motion pictures, Natalie Wood received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7000 Hollywood Blvd.
Natalie Wood's Timeline
July 20, 1938
San Francisco, CA, USA
November 29, 1981
Avalon, CA, USA
Los Angeles, California, USA