Saturday, May 23, 2020

Natalie Wood: Six Feet Under

Natalie Wood was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko on July 20, 1938.  As you might have guessed, she was the daughter of Russian immigrants.  She was born in San Francisco, but the family moved to Santa Rosa shortly thereafter.  It was there that Natalie was first discovered by a film crew, and based on their enthusiasm, the family resettled again, this time in Los Angeles.  By all accounts, Natalie's mother was determined to make her young daughter a star.

It didn't take long for Natalie to start landing roles.  Her first was a bit part in the 1943 film Happy Land, as a sad, young girl who drops her ice cream cone.  Watch that magnificent debut here.  Although the part was brief, she caught the eye of the director, Irving Pichel, who was so impressed by her natural talent that he promised to keep her in mind for upcoming roles.

A man of his word, Pichel cast Wood in the 1946 Orson Welles film Tomorrow is Forever.  Watch them share a scene in this clip.

After appearing in another Pichel film, Wood's mother signed her daughter to a new picture at 20th Century Fox, one destined to be a holiday classic.  Miracle on 34th Street was released in 1947 and has been airing at Christmas ever since.  I've still never seen it.  Watch the original trailer here.

The film established Wood as a genuine commodity in Hollywood, enabling her to pick any role she wanted.  Still a pre-teen, she appeared in a string of hits, including Father Was a Fullback (1949) with Fred MacMurray, The Jackpot (1950) with Jimmy Stewart, and The Star (1952) with Bette Davis.

As a teenager, Wood transitioned to the small screen, appearing as a regular on the TV series Pride of the Family.  Her mother was played by none other than Fay Wray.  You can watch an episode here.

When the series ended, Wood returned to the silver screen, appearing in the classic James Dean film, Rebel Without a Cause, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award.  It marked the beginning of her adult film career (you know what I mean), with back-to-back roles in the films Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story, both of which earned her additional Academy Award nominations.

Although she had a brief relationship with Elvis in 1956, Wood's true love was actor Robert Wagner, whom she claimed to have had a crush on since she was just a little girl.  On her 18th birthday, the studio arranged a date between the two actors, no doubt to gear up publicity.  But they took to each other and were married on December 28, 1957.  Given its proximity to Christmas, that dude had no excuse for forgetting their anniversary.

As often happens in Hollywood, egos got in the way, and the two divorced in 1962.  Seven years later, Wood married British producer Richard Gregson, with whom she had a daughter, Natasha (see Trivia below).  Shortly after the child's birth, Wood caught Gregson having an extra-marital affair and quickly filed for divorce.

Then in 1972, Wood resumed her relationship with Wagner, and the two were remarried on July 16th.

This all brings us to the fall of 1981.  Wood was shooting the film Brainstorm with actor Christopher Walken.  Watch the trailer here.  During a break in production, the two actors, accompanied by Wagner, departed on a weekend excursion aboard a yacht called The Splendour, operated by Dennis Davern.  On the night of November 28th, Natalie went overboard and drowned in the waters off Catalina.

Initially ruled an accidental drowning, the case received renewed scrutiny in 2011, when Davern came forward and claimed that Wood and Wagner had argued violently that night after Wood allegedly flirted with Walken.  Davern added that after Wood went overboard, Wagner wouldn't allow him to turn on the search lights or to notify any authorities.  As a result of Davern's claims, Wood's death certificate was changed from "accidental drowning" to "drowning and other undetermined factors."

Then in February 2018, Wagner was named as a person of interest, but he has steadfastly denied any involvement in Wood's death.  The case remains open.

Natalie Wood is buried at Pierce Brothers Memorial Park in Westwood Village. Her next-door neighbor is fellow actor/victim Bob Crane, the subject of a future Six Feet Under Hollywood.

Plot: Section D, #60
Inscription #1: "Beloved Daughter, Sister, Wife, Mother & Friend"
Inscription #2: "More Than Love"

Rest in peace.


  • The Splendour spent the last twenty years of its life illegally moored at a dock in Waikiki, where it accrued $12,000 in fines.  It was finally salvaged for scrap on January 27, 2020.

  • On the set of Tomorrow is Forever, Wood was unable to cry on cue as the scene called for.  In order to inspire her daughter to get the job done, Wood's mother tore a live butterfly apart in front of her.  Mission accomplished!

  • Miracle was such a success that Macy's invited Wood to appear in their annual Thanksgiving Day Parade.

  • Wood's daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner used the second grave inscription, "More Than Love," as the title of her 2020 biography of her mother's life.  Pick up a copy from Amazon.

  • This blogger met Robert Wagner at an autograph show in Baltimore in September 2018.  He seemed in good spirits.  Here's a picture from that show with fellow blogger Billie Rae Bates.  Check out her blog report here.

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