Natalie Wood, from child actress sensation, Oscar nominee, and courageous woman in Western films, to an untimely and mysterious death. Natalie Wood is cemented as one of the most famous women in Hollywood history.
Natalie Wood was born Natalie Zacharenko in San Francisco, California, on July 20, 1938. From a very young age, Wood grabbed the attention of Hollywood. Just before she was five years old, Natalie made her film debut in Happy Land, in 1943. Her scene only lasted about 15 seconds. But it was long enough to catch the attention of movie director Irving Pichel. By the time Wood turned seven, she was cast in Pichel’s 1946 romance film Tomorrow, set during the World War II era. By age eight, she landed the biggest break in her childhood acting career, Miracle on 34th Street. The 1947 Christmas comedy and drama was an enormous hit and is considered a Christmas movie classic. Wood was even invited to participate in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade after the film’s release.
Wood spent her childhood starring in more than 20 films. While Hollywood didn’t have many childhood stars who made the transition to acting as an adult, Wood broke that mold. Her breakout role was in 1955’s drama Rebel Without A Cause, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Wood played numerous roles during the 1950s, including 1956’s epic Western The Searchers. Wood stars alongside John Wayne in the post-Civil War film, which features challenges between settlers in Texas and Native Americans. The Searchers was a box office hit and is regarded as one of the best Western films of all time.
Wood was also cast in another Western in 1956 called The Burning Hills. The adventure and romance film stars Wood and Tab Hunter, a Hollywood heartthrob during the 50s and 60s. Alongside Hunter, Wood plays a strong woman of the West who’s not afraid to defend Hunter or point her gun at anyone.
Wood followed up with mega-hit films in 1961 with Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story. She was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Splendor in The Grass. In West Side Story, Wood played a Puerto Rican woman from the West Side of Manhattan. While she had a voiceover for her singing parts, West Side Story is considered one of Wood’s greatest films. The movie was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won 10.
In 1957, Wood married actor Robert Wagner. It was the first of her two marriages to Wagner, as they divorced in 1962. Wood got married again in 1969 to British producer Richard Gregson, and she gave birth to her daughter Natasha in 1970. But the marriage ended a couple of years later, in 1972. That same year Wood and Wagner re-kindled their relationship, and they were married in July 1972. In 1974, they welcomed their daughter Courtney into the world.
In 1981, Wood’s work on the 1981 film Brainstorm, sadly would be her last. Wood died mysteriously on November 29, 1981, during a boat trip near Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of Southern California near Los Angeles. Wood was on the trip with her husband Wagner, her co-star in Brainstorm Christopher Walken, and the boat captain Dennis Davern. Her body was found the morning of November 29th, about a mile away from the boat. The cause of death was ruled “accidental drowning,” and in 2011, the case was reopened, and the cause of death was changed to “drowning and other undetermined factors.”
Wood’s sudden death left behind an enormous legacy and body of Hollywood work. By the early 1980s, Wood had performed in dozens of Hollywood films and television series, winning several Golden Globe Awards and receiving three Oscar nominations. Her ability to play numerous dynamic roles, from Westerns to romance, to a little girl on Miracle on 34th Street, lead her to become one of the biggest Hollywood leading ladies of all time.