Hollywood Remains to Be Seen

Natalie Wood
1938 - 1981

Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park

Natalie Wood is one of the few successful child actors who also achieved success as a teen-age star and a leading lady, but is often remembered primarily for her tragic and mysterious death.

Wood made her film debut at the age of 5, as an extra in “Happy Land” (1943). The film’s director, Irving Pichel, remembered Wood several years later when he needed a girl to co-star with Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert in “Tomorrow is Forever” (1946), and signed Wood for the part. Wood next appeared in “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947) and “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947), the holiday classic in which she plays the skeptical child who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus.

Wood literally grew up on-screen, appearing in “Father Was a Fullback” (1949), “Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hey” (1948) – one of Marilyn Monroe’s first films – “Never a Dull Moment” (1950), “The Star” (1952) and “The Silver Chalice” (1954). By the mid-1950s, Wood had graduated to more substantial roles, including “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), co-starring with James Dean and Sal Mineo, which earned her an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress. Wood also starred as John Wayne’s niece in “The Searchers” (1956).

Unlike many young actors, Wood made a smooth transition into adult roles as a dark-eyed beauty, co-starring with more-established (and much older) actors including Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, Gene Kelly, Warren Beatty and her future husband, Robert Wagner, in films including “Marjorie Morningstar” (1958), “Kings Go Forth” (1958), “Cash McCall” (1959), “All the Fine Young Cannibals” (1960) and “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), which earned her a second Academy Award nomination, this time as Best Actress. Wood also starred in two successful musicals -– although she didn’t do her own singing -– as stripper Gypsy Rose Lee in “Gypsy” (1961) and “West Side Story” (1961).

Wood received her third Academy Award nomination, as Best Actress, for her performance in “Love With the Proper Stranger” (1963), co-starring Steve McQueen. She also starred in “Sex and the Single Girl” (1964), “Inside Daisy Clover” (1965), “The Great Race” (1965), “This Property is Condemned” (1966) and “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” (1969). Wood appeared in only a few films in the 1970s, including made-for-television versions of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1976) and “From Here to Eternity” (1979).

Wood and Wagner were married for the first time in 1957, and divorced in 1962. After a brief marriage to producer Richard Gregson from 1969 to 1971, she and Wagner re-married in 1972, aboard Wagner’s 55-foot yacht, “The Splendour.”

In 1981, Wood was working with co-star Christopher Walken on a science-fiction thriller titled “Brainstorm.” In late November, Wood, Wagner and Walken went out to spend a few days over the long Thanksgiving weekend on “The Splendour” in the Pacific Ocean near Santa Catalina Island. During one of the nights at sea, Wood tried to leave the yacht and get into an 11-foot rubber dinghy, but she fell into the water and drowned. Her body was found floating in the water the next morning, clad in her flannel nightgown, knee-high wool socks and a down jacket. She was 43.

An investigation into her death revealed that Wagner and Walken had quarreled on the yacht shortly before Wood attempted to leave in the dinghy, and she may have been trying to get away from them. When she slipped and fell into the cold water, the weight of her water-soaked jacket made it difficult for her to climb into the dinghy. Her death was ruled an accidental drowning.

“Brainstorm” was completed using a stand-in for Wood, and was released to poor reviews in 1983.

Wood’s grave identifies her as Natalie Wood Wagner, and includes the inscription, “Beloved daughter, sister, wife, mother and friend – More than love.” Her grave is usually surrounded by potted plants and flowers, and covered with coins.

Wood was born Natasha Nikolaevna Gurdin on July 20, 1938, in San Francisco, CA. She died on Nov. 29, 1981, in the waters off Santa Catalina Island, CA.

Back to biographies page