Born to Russian-immigrant parents, Natalie Wood made her first film appearance at age four as an extra in Happy Land (1943). When she was promoted to supporting roles, the young Wood was well prepared for the artistic discipline expected of her: She'd been taking dancing lessons since infancy. By 1947, she earned up to a thousand dollars per week for such films as Miracle on 34th Street. She made a reasonably smooth transition to grown-up roles, most notably as James Dean's girlfriend in Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and Warren Beatty's steady in Splendor in the Grass (1961). She was also a regular on the 1953 sitcom Pride of the Family, playing the teenaged daughter of Paul Hartman and Fay Wray. Despite being romantically linked with several of her leading men, Wood settled down to marriage relatively early, wedding film star Robert Wagner in 1957. The union didn't last, and she and Wagner were divorced in 1962. Continuing to star in such important films as West Side Story (1961), Gypsy (1963), Inside Daisy Clover (1967), and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969), Wood always managed to bounce back from her numerous career setbacks, and in 1971, after an interim marriage to screenwriter Richard Gregson, Wood remarried Robert Wagner, this time for keeps. Opinions of her acting ability varied: Her adherents felt that she was one of Hollywood's most versatile stars, while her detractors considered her to be more fortunate than talented. The Oscar people thought enough of Wood to nominate her three times, for Rebel Without A Cause, Splendor in the Grass, and Love With the Proper Stranger (1963). In the midst of filming the 1981 sci-fier Brainstorm, 43-year-old Natalie Wood drowned in a yachting accident just off Catalina Island. Among her survivors was her sister, actress Lana Wood.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- The daughter of Russian immigrants who changed the family name to Gurdin after becoming U.S. citizens. The stage name Natalie Wood was given to her by a Hollywood producer who thought it was more marketable. She never legally changed her name from Natasha Gurdin.
- Began career as a movie extra at age 4. At 8, she captured the hearts of audiences in the Christmas film Miracle on 34th Street.
- As a teen actress ready to escape her child-star image, she accepted a role opposite heartthrob James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, and earned her first Academy Award nomination.
- Was associated romantically throughout her career with numerous high-profile men, including Elvis Presley, Warren Beatty and Dennis Hopper.
- A publicity-staged date for her 18th birthday with handsome rising star Robert Wagner began a romance that resulted in marriage a year later.
- Despite her fear of water and inability to swim, director Elia Kazan manipulated her into performing the reservoir scene in Splendor in the Grass (1961) instead of using a stunt double.
- While her songs in West Side Story (1961) were recorded by renowned vocalist Marni Nixon, she did do her own singing the next year in Gypsy (1962).
- In 1962, filed for divorce from husband Wagner after a reported infidelity. Married producer Richard Gregson in May 1969.
- After learning Gregson was having an affair, she filed for divorce in 1971 and found comfort in the arms of first husband Wagner. They remarried in 1972.
- Accidentally drowned at age 43 while spending a weekend on her yacht with husband Wagner and friend Christopher Walken.
- Her death came while she'd been filming the sci-fi thriller Brainstorm; a new ending was devised using pre-existing footage.
- Following her death, her sister Lana Wood authored a tell-all memoir and later coproduced the 2004 television movie The Mystery of Natalie Wood, directed by Peter Bogdanovich.