Wood, Natalie (1938–1981)

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Wood, Natalie (1938–1981)

American actress best known for her roles in the classics Miracle on 34th Street and Rebel Without a Cause . Born Natasha Gurdin (also seen as Natasha Zakharenko) on July 20, 1938, in Santa Rosa, California; died on November 29, 1981, in a boating accident off the California coast; daughter of Maria Nikolaevna Gurdin (later Maria Wood) and Nicholas Gurdin; married Robert Wagner (an actor), in 1957 (divorced 1962); married Richard Gregson (an actor), in 1969 (divorced 1971); remarried Robert Wagner, in 1972; children: (with Gregson) Natasha Gregson (b. 1970, later Natasha Wagner, an actress); (with Wagner) Courtney Wagner (b. 1974); (stepdaughter) Katie Wagner .

Cast as an extra in a film shooting in her hometown when she was four years old (1942); as Natalie Wood, became a popular child star in Hollywood (1940s); became famous with her appearance in Miracle on 34th Street (1947); nominated for her first Academy Award for her work in Rebel Without a Cause, playing opposite James Dean (1955), followed by two more nominations for Splendor in the Grass and Love with the Proper Stranger; during later career, turned more toward television films.


Tomorrow Is Forever (1945); Driftwood (1947); The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947); Miracle on 34th Street (1947); Father Was a Fullback (1949); Green Promise (1949); Never a Dull Moment (1950); Our Very Own (1950); Just for You (1953); The Rose Bowl Story (1953); Star (1953); I'm a Fool (1953); The Silver Chalice (1954); Rebel Without a Cause (1955); The Burning Hills (1956); The Searchers (1956); Bombers B-52 (1957); Kings Go Forth (1958); Marjorie Morningstar (1958); Cash McCall (1959); Splendor in the Grass (1961); West Side Story (1961); Gypsy (1962); Love with the Proper Stranger (1963); Sex and the Single Girl (1964); The Great Race (1965); Inside Daisy Clover (1965); This Property Is Condemned (1966); Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969); The Affair (1973); From Here to Eternity (1979); Meteor (1979); The Last Married Couple in America (1980); Willie and Phil (1980); Brainstorm (released 1983).

It seemed to film director Irving Pichel that most of Santa Rosa, California, had turned out for his casting call one spring day in 1943, even though he was looking for only one particular extra—a little girl who would burst into tears when she dropped the ice cream cone she was eating. He and his cast and crew had come to the neat, all-American town near San Francisco for outdoor scenes for the romantic comedy Happy Days; and thus it was that Pichel was confronted with Maria Gurdin and her four-year-old daughter, Natasha. Pichel, struck by the child's lustrous dark eyes, bent down to ask if she could cry on cue, but Maria quickly answered for her daughter. "Of course she can!," she said as emphatically as a thick Russian accent would allow, launching the career she would assiduously tend from the wings for the next 20 years; for under her guidance, little Natasha would metamorphose into Natalie Wood.

Wood was the second of Maria Nikolaevna's two daughters, born from two different marriages—the first in her native Tomsk, Siberia, to a man who later abandoned her and her daughter Olga Wood after suggesting that they emigrate to America. Maria followed through on the advice, eventually arriving in California to marry another Russian immigrant, Nicholas Gurdin, variously described as a prop man or an architect, but whose talents as a carpenter constructing movie sets first brought Maria into contact with the film industry. The couple had settled in Santa Rosa by the time Natasha was born on July 20, 1938. A third daughter, Lana Wood , would follow eight years later. Three years after Natalie's brief movie debut, Pichel remembered the pretty little dark-haired girl from Santa Rosa and offered to cast her as Orson Welles' daughter in Tomorrow Is Forever. "She was a born professional, so good, she was terrifying," Welles said years later about acting with Pichel's discovery. Natalie was more modest about her first major role. "I could hardly read, so my part had to be told to me, and then I would memorize it," she remembered. It was Pichel who guided Wood's early career, getting her signed with Twentieth Century-Fox and suggesting the name change, anglicizing Natasha to Natalie and borrowing the last name of his friend and fellow director, Sam Wood. Maria took Pichel's suggestion a step further and adopted the name Wood for herself and the rest of the family as well. Natalie was so young when she entered the film business that it never occurred to her at the time that anything was remarkable about her life. "It was only when I met people outside the studios … that it began to dawn on me that life was different for other people," she said.

It soon became evident that Maria's confidence in her daughter's abilities was well founded, for Natalie could hold her own on screen against such major Hollywood figures as Gene Tierney (in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) and Bette Davis (in The Star), despite her youth and lack of formal training. In fact, the famously temperamental Bette Davis became so enamored of the ten-year-old playing her daughter that she rushed to her defense when the film's director insisted that Natalie dive from a boat, as required by the script, despite Wood's tearful protests that she was afraid of the water. "If you want a swimmer, go find Johnny Weissmuller!" Davis said, threatening to leave the picture if the director persisted. A double was quickly found. By the time Natalie appeared in the classic Miracle on 34th Street in 1947 as the little girl who discovers there really is a Santa Claus, she was well on her way to replacing a maturing Shirley Temple (Black) and an adolescent Elizabeth Taylor as Hollywood's favorite child actress. Under Maria's careful eye, Wood was friendly and compliant on the set, got along with cast and crew, and was well prepared for a scene by the time it was rehearsed. Even more important, she projected an innocent, transparent intensity on screen that made her performance entirely believable and her character an integral part of the picture, rather than a cloying adornment.

By 1954, Wood had appeared in over 20 films, although few of them are memorable and some were outright flops. One critic thought that 1954's The Silver Chalice would have been better left undeveloped in the can; and even Paul Newman, who co-starred in the picture, published a letter of apology when it aired for the first time on television. Most of Wood's films from this period, however, were modest family comedies, with titles like Father Was a Fullback and Never a Dull Moment, that performed reliably at the box office and provided Natalie and her family with an equally reliable income. Maria was content to bank her daughter's salary and keep her working, arranging for tutoring on the set and keeping Wood away from the normal activities of others her age; but she miscalculated the passions that frequently assail a young girl entering womanhood, particularly Natalie's desire to be more than just a wage-earner for her family. "I was a bit like a puppet," Wood once said of these years. "Acting was something I did automatically, obeying the director, who pulled the strings, and my mother, who ran my life." Now, in 1955, two pieces of the puzzle came together that would free her from Maria's control. One of them was the volcanic James Dean, and the other was the picture in which they costarred, Rebel Without a Cause.

Nicholas Ray's explosive examination of teenage angst found a huge audience among young moviegoers who were just discovering their collective voice as the country's new protest generation. Wood's portrayal of the high-school sweetheart Judy who defies her parents and falls for Dean's misfit Jimmy Stark electrified audiences and brought Natalie her first Academy Award nomination; but it was the off-screen relationship between Dean and Wood that was of more significance for her career. The two had first met two years earlier, when both had been cast in a television play. "I couldn't take my eyes off him," she said of their first encounter at a rehearsal for the play. "His words were slow and laborious and sometimes you couldn't hear him at all. I never ever worked with anyone quite like him." Her fascination was probably helped by the fact that Dean arrived at the rehearsal on his revered motorcycle and used a window to enter the room, rather than the door. Dean, who would complete only one more picture before dying in a motorcycle crash in 1955, the year Rebel was released, encouraged Natalie to trust her own emotions and take control of her life away from her mother; and it was Dean's fascination with psychoanalysis that marked the beginning of Wood's own search for self-knowledge under professional guidance, which in turn brought a new emotional intensity to her acting under Ray's direction. For the rest of her life, Wood's most prized possession would be a bust of Dean that accompanied her whenever she was working on a picture.

Just 17 when Rebel was released, Natalie was soon appearing in Hollywood gossip sheets as she moved further away from her mother's influence and toward a life of parties, celebrity dates and scandalous rumors, all of which added to her box-office appeal. Warner Bros. took advantage of the publicity and cast Wood against type in John Ford's classic Western The Searchers. Her role as John Wayne's long-lost niece, abducted by Native Americans only to become one of them in the post-Civil War West, was her first mature character and an indication of the range of which she was capable.

During 1956, Wood met a young actor who had moved to Hollywood six years earlier from Detroit and who quickly became her most ardent suitor. "When I saw them together, I sensed romance in the air," reported Natalie's younger sister, Lana, of Robert Wagner's first visit to the Woods' home. Wagner had made a promising start in the film business as a dark-haired, strikingly handsome supporting actor and, like Natalie, had been quickly signed by Twentieth Century-Fox. (Natalie had moved to Warner's before they met.) By the time he proposed to Natalie (by famously placing a wedding ring in the bottom of a champagne-filled glass), he was attracting attention for his work as a cold-blooded killer in A Kiss Before Dying and seemed destined for leading-man status. When Wood went to work shooting Marjorie Morningstar in early 1957, a posse of photographers and gossip columnists followed her and Wagner all the way to the shoot's location in the Adirondacks; and in December of that year, Natalie and "R.J.," as he was nicknamed, were married in Scottsdale, Arizona, later moving into a plush Beverly Hills mansion where, as the press would have it, they enjoyed "the most glittering union of the 20th century." Wagner was 26, Natalie just 19.

But the union suffered from professional pressures, as the careers of each seemed to stall. Wood had entered the dangerous territory between child stardom and more adult roles, while Wagner's prospects dimmed in the face of competition from more dynamic newcomers like Newman and Marlon Brando, even after he and his new wife co-starred in 1960's All the Fine Young Cannibals. Natalie, for her part, almost didn't get the job that would bring her another Academy Award nomination and restart her career, as Elia Kazan told friends he didn't want to cast "some washed-up child star" as the lead in his upcoming Splendor in the Grass. But Kazan reconsidered when Wood came to audition for him. "I detected a twinkle in her eyes," he said. "I knew there was an unsatisfied hunger there. I could see that the crisis in her career was preparing her for a crisis in her personal life. She told me she was being psychoanalyzed. That did it." Kazan cast Wood opposite Warren Beatty in his story of ill-starred love in a small town, based on a narrative by playwright William Inge. Natalie's radiant performance (and her affair with Beatty during the shoot) proved his instincts right. With her marriage to Wagner in trouble, Wood invited a 14-month suspension by Warner's for refusing to leave Wagner to shoot a film in England. Finally, in April 1962, Hollywood's perfect young couple divorced, a decision that would haunt both of them for the next ten years.

Ironically, those years would mark the most prolific period of Wood's career, with her most varied collection of roles, including two musicals—as Maria in Robert Wise's 1961 screen adaptation of West Side Story (with Natalie's singing voice dubbed by Marnie Nixon ) and as Gypsy Rose Lee in Mervyn LeRoy's 1962 film version of Gypsy (this time Natalie insisting on doing her own singing). Astute Hollywood observers remarked how closely the musical's story of Rose Hovick , the overbearing show-business mother whose daughter eventually strikes out on her own, described the relationship between Maria Gurdin and Natalie Wood. Having by now played a Puerto Rican street girl from New York and a blossoming stripper on the 1930s vaudeville circuit, Natalie won her third Academy Award nomination for her work as the Italian Catholic working girl Angie Rossini in Robert Mulligan's 1963 film Love with the Proper Stranger. A gritty, quirky love story shot on location in New York, the film tackled the subject of abortion as Natalie's character discovers she's pregnant from a passing affair with Steve McQueen's itinerant trumpet player. Wood's performance, one critic wrote, "is the linchpin of the film, played with pluck and humor."

Despite the ebullient spirit with which she infused the character of Angie, Wood's off-screen life was unraveling. A series of short-lived, painful affairs following her divorce from Wagner, some of them with whoever her leading man was in whatever film she happened to be shooting, drove her even further into therapy, anti-depressant medications and increased alcohol consumption. None of her pictures fared well at the box office and, without Wagner, she was lonely and depressed enough to take an overdose of sleeping pills late in 1966. Recovering in a hospital under an assumed name, she told sister Lana, "I just didn't want to live any more."

Things seemed to take a turn for the better when Wood met Richard Gregson, a British entrepreneur who dabbled in the film business as a producer and writer. "When she was with Richard, Natalie was settled, calm, and happy," Lana Wood remembered some years later. The two married in 1969 at a lavish Russian Orthodox

wedding planned by Maria, after which the happily married Natalie began work on Paul Mazursky's spoof of married life, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice—her first film in three years and another reach for her, since she had never taken on a purely comic role. The film was one of the biggest hits of the year and seemed to put her career back on track, not to mention her life, for Wood announced during shooting that she had just discovered she was pregnant. In September 1970, Natalie gave birth to a girl that she and Gregson named Natasha, later Natasha Wagner .

But before little Natasha was barely a year old, the marriage that had begun so hopefully was over, Wood accusing Gregson of having an affair with her secretary and ordering him out of her life. Gregson complied, plaintively telling a Hollywood gossip sheet, "I was totally unprepared for living with an actress." The two were divorced in 1971. "She was … deeply and seriously unhappy, her safe, secure world destroyed," Lana wrote in her memoir of the months after the marriage ended. "Some women accommodate themselves to husbands like Richard. Not Natalie."

All my life I've been looking for someone to love me.

—Natalie Wood as Judy in Rebel Without a Cause

Wood did not appear in another film after Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice for three years; so it was with some surprise that she arrived at the 1972 Academy Awards in the company of none other than Robert Wagner. "There are happy endings after all," she told a gaggle of reporters who were astonished as much by the fact they had been unaware of the reconciliation as by the story itself. It had begun, Wood explained, a year earlier at a dinner party arranged by thoughtful mutual friends. At the time, Wagner was recently divorced after a brief European marriage and Wood was about to bring an end to her marriage to Gregson. The two lovers had managed to keep their renewed relationship a secret even from Natalie's family, who only learned of it when Wagner attended a family dinner at Wood's home. Wagner and Wood married for the second time in July of that year. As if to reinforce the rematch, Natalie returned to the screen with Wagner as her co-star in 1973's The Affair, in which she played a wheelchair-bound songwriter who falls in love with her lawyer, played by Wagner. It was the first of many collaborations for the couple.

In 1974, Natalie gave birth to a second daughter, Courtney Wagner , and announced that she would accept no further film roles that required her to be away from home and her children for extended periods. It was one reason why she turned increasingly to making television films, with their shorter shooting schedules on local stages and locations. In 1979, she and Wagner appeared in a television version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which Laurence Olivier played Big Daddy; that same year, Wagner debuted in "Hart to Hart," a mystery series which cast him and Stefanie Powers as married sleuths, a contemporary Nick and Nora Charles. The Wagner-Wood marriage was marked by a mature view of the quixotic business in which both spouses had staked their careers, Wagner accepting his failure as a major box-office star and Wood content to look back on a stunning 20 years at the top of the business.

There were occasional returns to the world she had once known only too well, but the last few films of her life were unremarkable and pale comparisons to the triumphs of her earlier years. She completed work on what would be her last film, Brainstorm, in the summer of 1981. That fall, she, Wagner, and actor-friend Christopher Walken, who had co-starred with Natalie in Brainstorm, departed on Wagner's beloved yacht for a weekend vacation on Catalina Island, off the California coast near Los Angeles. Wagner had named the boat Splendor in honor of what he considered her best film role in Kazan's picture. Despite Wood's terror of water that had first come to the surface so many years before, and that had brought Bette Davis to her defense, she enjoyed sailing on the Splendor. On the night of November 29, 1981, the three friends moored in the island's harbor and went ashore in a dinghy to have dinner. The Splendor's captain later reported that, upon returning to the yacht, an argument had broken out below decks as the three friends sat drinking and Wood began flirting with Walken, much to Wagner's irritation. The three then retired, each to a separate bedroom. Wagner, Walken, and the ship's captain all claimed they heard no splash or cry for help when Natalie went overboard that night. A medical examiner later suggested that the heavy down coat she wore had quickly dragged her under when she apparently slipped while trying to secure the dinghy's loose rope, its banging against the hull perhaps keeping her awake. The official report also indicated that Natalie's blood-alcohol level had been well above legal limits, confirmed by her husband and Walken, who admitted that they had all drunk rather heavily during and after dinner. Natalie's body washed ashore the next morning, the empty dinghy bobbing nearby. She was 43 years old.

"I had lived a charmed life, and then I lost a beautiful woman I loved with all my heart," Wagner said in 1988. It was virtually the only public comment he ever made about his loss, despite the usual Hollywood rumors of the circumstances surrounding the incident. Relations with Natalie's family soured when Lana Wood's memoir appeared in 1984, suggesting that Wagner was ultimately responsible for his wife's death; and when Vanity Fair attempted to arrange a photo shoot in the spring of 2000 with every actress who had ever played in a James Bond film, Wagner's present wife Jill St. John and Lana, both of whom had been "Bond girls," engaged in such a furious verbal assault on each other that the shoot had to be cancelled. Close friends claim that Wagner will remain in mourning for Natalie Wood for the rest of his life.

Despite her early death, Wood's career in films spanned nearly 40 years, from the little girl who cried at the loss of her ice cream in 1943 to a tremulous young lover in Splendor in the Grass, an alluring stripper in Gypsy, and a working-class girl in Love with the Proper Stranger. Off screen, she had confronted the upheavals of her private life, ultimately producing a happy ending as an actress, wife, and mother. She seemed to take to heart the lines from Wordsworth that she recites in a scene in Splendor in the Grass:

We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.


Parker, John. Five For Hollywood. NY: Carol, 1991.

Wood, Lana. Natalie. NY: Putnam, 1984.

suggested reading:

Finstad, Suzanne. Natasha. Harmony, 2001.

Kashner, Sam. "Natalie Wood's Final, Fatal Hours," in Vanity Fair. February 2000.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York