This doe-eyed brunette beauty followed up a successful stint as a child star with a run as one of Hollywood’s most popular female leads of the ’60s, rendering a series of noteworthy performances as emotionally fragile young women. Born in San Francisco in 1938 to Russian emigres, her architect father came to ply his trade as a film set designer, and Natasha Gurdin made her screen debut at the age of four in 1943’s Happy Land, although she was uncredited in the role of “the little girl who drops an ice cream cone.” Her father’s name was actually “Zakharenko” but decided to change it to “Gurdin” just before coming to America.
After it was suggested to go for a more “show biz” sounding name, little Natalie Wood swiftly became the family’s prime bread-winner starting right at the top as a German war orphan with Hollywood A-listers Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert in Tomorrow is Forever (1945). About that experience, Welles later said that Natalie was a “born professional” and that “she was so good, she was terrifying.”
Two films followed in 1947 that have become national treasures: Miracle on 34th Street cast Natalie as Maureen O’Hara’s precocious daughter, who had to be taught by Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) to use her imagination and believe in Santa Claus. Then, she was Gene Tierney’s daughter Anna in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, with a bearded Rex Harrison as the spirit. The film’s director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz said about Natalie, “In all my years in the business, I never met a smarter moppet.”
She continued her rise to stardom in the late ’40s and ended that decade’s “little girl” roles by appearing in a dramatic turn as Walter Brennan’s daughter in The Green Promise, which inadvertantly became a turning point for Natalie. During filming, she fell on a bridge during a storm scene and her wrist was injured. From then on it became a “trademark” for her to wear a wide bracelet on her left hand, hiding her permanant wound, which she considered unsightly. This film just about marked the end of her “childhood” roles and years later, when asked about having regrets about being a child actor, Natalie said, “In so many ways I think it’s a bore to be sorry you were a child actor – so many people feel sorry for you automatically. At the time I wasn’t aware of the things I missed, so why should I think of them in retrospect? Everybody misses something or other.”
In 1952’s The Star, as a teenager, Natalie tried to hide her problems from her has-been actress mother, played by Bette Davis, but her real-life personal fear of being in the water came to light while making the film. The script called for Wood to jump into the ocean and swim to a small boat. Natalie’s objections were ignored by director Stuart Heisler, and Davis, known to be turbulent on the set, came to her “daughter’s” aid, threatening to walk away unless Heisler used a stunt double instead. At AFI’s 1977 tribute to the legendary Davis, Natalie recalled, “This was the only time I saw the famous Bette Davis temperament surface– and it was not in her own behalf.” The revelation of her fear of water was evident throughout many interviews Natalie granted where she confided, “I like being on the water or near the water but not in the water.”
She was in demand for “teenage” roles in both movies and TV — and then in 1955 got her big break. Wood delivered one of her defining performances opposite James Dean in the teen angst classic Rebel Without a Cause, and obtained her first of three career Oscar nominations for her efforts. For trivia fans, her uptight dad in “Rebel” was William Hopper (son of Hollywood gossip hound, Hedda Hopper) who was a staple on the Perry Mason TV show.
The following year, Natalie worked with John Wayne in what many film historians consider to be director John Ford’s finest work, The Searchers, in which she was convincing as a girl abducted by Indians after the Civil War and sought by uncle Wayne. Her successes led to two starring roles opposite Warners’ then-reigning heartthrob Tab Hunter, The Burning Hills and The Girl He Left Behind, and as the 1950s came to a close, she turned in three fine performances helping to pave her way to super stardom: In Bombers B-52, she was Karl Malden’s daughter falling in love with one of her dad’s enemies, and in 1958 she shared top billing as a naive Jewish girl in the big city with Gene Kelly in Marjorie Morningstar, based on Herman Wouk’s best seller. Wood had an important dramatic role in 1958’s Kings Go Forth with Frank Sinatra and Tony Curtis, a movie that examines racial prejudice during World War II.
The early ’60s saw the most fertile period of her career, with such best-remembered classics as Cash McCall with friend James Garner, where she is a wealthy upper-crust Philadelphian being pursued by a ruthless, yet loveable entreprenaur. She proved she was a force to be reckoned alongside Warren Beatty in Elia Kazan’s 1961 blockbuster Splendor in the Grass, for which she received her second Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, as a fragile young woman driven to madness And in the same year showed audiences another facet of her versatility in a big screen musical in that year’s Best Picture Oscar Winner, West Side Story. Although her voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon, Natalie did not have a bad singing voice. The producers felt her voice didn’t project enough and wanted Nixon to cover her, not at all unusual in the 1960s. She followed with another well-known musical, this time doing her own singing in the title role of Gypsy, based on the life of burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. In an interesting piece of trivia about that movie: Natalie’s mother in the film, superstar Rosalind Russell, had to have her songs dubbed when her voice was found to be unsatisfactory.
Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) brought her together with Steve McQueen and their magical screen pairing gained her third Oscar nomination and remains one of her most popular films. She was a dynamo with hit after hit including such crowd pleasers as Sex and the Single Girl (1964), in which she was magazine editor Helen Gurlie Brown opposite old friend Tony Curtis. Then in ’65 Wood paired with Curtis again in The Great Race for Blake Edwards, A succession of box-office triumphs followed , but she seldom was able to rise above secondary material. At the top of her game, she was in demand to pair with Robert Redford for two movies: Inside Daisy Clover, as a driven girl clawing her way in the world of show business, and the following year for director Sidney Pollack in a Tennessee Williams drama, This Property Is Condemned, which also starred Charles Bronson and Robert Blake. She would later appear again with Redford doing a cameo appearance in The Candidate (1972).
Her last film of the 1960s, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, was a huge box office success but one in which she had a few reservations. When discussing the film, she said, “I felt a little funny when we were going to do the bed scene, all four of us, in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. I’m open to suggestions, I’m no prude, but four is a crowd in my book. Fortunately, Dyan Cannon was there. The thought of another woman being in there in the bed helped get me through it. It’s not like it sounds. It’s just that I don’t think I could have done it if it had been me and three men.” Something should be said about Natalie’s films in the 1960s — they were bonafide box-office winners but her acting was criticized by some and in 1966 she was voted “worst actress of the year” by Harvard Lampoon and became the first actress in history to accept the award in person, showing she was a good sport about it all.
An often-turbulent personal life provided consistent gossip column fodder, linking her name to relationships with Hollywood elite. Natalie was married three times; to Robert Wagner from December 1957 until April 1962, then to British producer Richard Gregson from May 1969 to April 1972 , and once again to Wagner in 1972.
Her output was intermittent by the ’70s, as she appeared in made-for-TV movies such as The Affair with spouse Wagner, and two remakes of big Hollywood hits, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1976), also with Wagner, and1979’s From Here to Eternity. Interestingly, she fitted in an appearance in an episode of Wagner’s popular TV series, Hart to Hart. For that role as a movie star, she humorously used her original name, Natasha Gurdin. Peeper (1975) brought her together with Michael Caine in a comedy and mystery mix, a film noir spoof about a 1940s private investigator dealing with a quirky family. The critics were not kind and audiences mostly stayed away. Her final performance, in1983’s Brainstorm, reached theaters over a year after her untimely accidental death at sea.
Natalie Wood died on November 29, 1981 at age 43 while she and husband Wagner were sailing near Santa Catalina Island, California. Also on board was their friend Christopher Walken. Natalie fell overboard into the ocean and drowned, and although Wood’s death was officially declared an accident, her sister Lana Wood asked police to reopen the investigation in March 2010. Natalie’s sister claims there are too many things about the tragedy needing clarification. For her legions of fans, she is sadly missed.
And now, sit back and let Natalie entertain you as only she could in the theatrical trailer for Gypsy from 1962: