Born: July 20, 1938
Birth name: Natalia Nikolaevna Zacharenko
Date of Birth: July 20, 1938
Date of Death: November 29, 1981
Born in San Francisco to Russian immigrant parents Nikolai Stepanovich Zacharenko and Maria Stepanovna, Natalie Wood achieved child stardom at the tender age of four.
In her youth, Natalie’s mother dreamed of becoming an actress or ballet dancer, but transferred her aspiration to her daughter, Natalie. Shortly after Natalie’s birth, her family moved to Santa Rosa, California, where her mother orchestrated a meeting with director Irving Pichel. Natalie landed her film debut a few weeks before turning five, playing a 15-second scene in the 1943 film Happy Land as a little girl who drops an ice cream cone. Despite the brief part, she made an impression on the director. Maria made sure to keep in touch and two years when a bigger role came up, Irving asked Natalie to do a screen test.
At the age of seven, Natalie landed a role as a German orphan in the 1946 movie Tomorrow is Forever opposite of Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert. Orson later on said that Natalie was a born professional: “so good, she was terrifying.” After playing the daughter of Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Cummings, in The Bride Wore Boots (1946), also directed by Pichel, Maria signed Natalie with 20th Century Fox, where she landed her first major role, the role for which she would forever be best known, as Susan Walker, a little girl who doubted the existence of Santa Claus in the 1947 Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street.
After the success of Miracle on 34th Street, Natalie played daughters in a number of family films: the daughter of Fred MacMurray in Father was a Fullback and Dear Brat, Margaret Sullavan in No Sad Songs for Me, James Stewart in The Jackpot, Joan Blondell in The Blue Veil, and the daughter of Bette Davis’ character in The Star. All in all, Natalie appeared in over 20 films as a child actress.
The most famous child star of her time, Natalie received major media attention. By the age of nine, she was named the “most exciting juvenile motion picture star of the year” by Parents. At 12, Natalie was named “Child Star of the Year” by the Children’s Day National Council of New York.
Natalie successfully made the transition from child star to leading lady at the age of 16 when she co-starred with James Dean and Sal Mineo in Nicholas Ray’s 1955 film about teenage rebellion, Rebel Without a Cause. She received her first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, as well as a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer - Female (despite having been a star for years).
After working steadily for years both in movies and on television, she scored another coup when she was cast in Elia Kazan’s 1961 Splendor in the Grass opposite Warren Beatty, as an emotionally fragile young woman driven to madness. The role earned Best Actress nominations at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and BAFTA. The same year, she starred in another troubled romance, West Side Story in which she falls for a boy on the wrong side of the tracks. An urban retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the movie proved to be a hit.
The following year she played the lead role of Gypsy Rose Lee in the musical based on a true story, Gypsy. In fact, finding was never a problem for Natalie as she played opposite Robert Redford in Inside Daisy Clover, playing a teenager who becomes a child star, only to find it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. She reunited with Redford in This Property is Condemned, based on the play by Tennessee Williams.
In her personal life, Natalie had begun a series of romances with much older men. In 1957, she married actor Robert Wagner who was nine years older, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1962. After a series of failed relationships, she semi-retired at the age of 28. However, three years later she returned to the big screen with the hit 1969 comedy Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, co-starring Elliott Gould, Dyan Cannon, and Robert Culp.In 1969 she married another older man, writer/producer Richard Gregson and the following year, Natalie gave birth to a daughter, Natasha Gregson. They separated in 1971 after she realized he was having an affair. In 1971, Natalie reunited with her Robert Wagner and they married again in 1972.
A mother and newlywed, Natalie took on fewer acting roles. She earned positive reviews for her performance in a televised version of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1976. In 1979, she was acclaimed for her role in the television miniseries From Here to Eternity. During the same year, Natalie paired up with Sean Connery for the poorly received sci-fi film Meteor. Appearing in the 1980 comedy The Last Married Couple in America, commercial and critical success again eluded her. In 1981, she was working on her last film alongside Christopher Walken in the sci-fi thriller Brainstorm when she mysteriously drowned.
In November 1981, Natalie took a trip with husband Robert Wagner to California’s Catalina Island on their boat: Splendour. Her Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken was also on board. On the night of November 29, the three stars had been drinking. Robert reportedly broke a bottle due to anger about Natalie and Christopher being “too close.” Later that evening, Robert claims he was unable to locate Natalie. The following morning, her body was discovered floating in the water off Catalina. Her death was ruled an accidental drowning. It was later on theorized that Natalie might have fallen into the water attempting to secure a dinghy to prevent it from banging into the boat. Objections to this theory soon rose, as Natalie had a lifelong fear of water.
The case into her death was reopened in November 2011 after the captain of the boat, Dennis Davern, told NBC News that he lied to police during the initial investigation and that a fight between Robert and Natalie led to her death. After nine months of further investigation, Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran amended Natalie’s death certificate and changed the reason for her death from “accidental drowning” to “drowning and undetermined factors.” Natalie Wood was buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.
"I’ve been terrified of the water, and yet it seems I’m forced to go into it on every movie that I make." It is more than 30 years since her passing, but the public still remains haunted by Natalie Wood’s untimely end.