Inside Natalie Wood
One of the most popular child actors ever, Natalie Wood stayed in the limelight through her teens and adulthood until her tragic death at the age of 43. Here are 30 intriguing facts about the daughter of Russian immigrants turned Hollywood legend.
She Hated That Stage Name
She was born Natasha Nikolaevna Zacharenko on July 20, 1938, but an RKO Radio Pictures executive named her Natalie Wood when she began her acting career just a few years later. "I didn't mind 'Natalie,'" she later said, "but I hated 'Wood.'"
She Was Something Rare in Hollywood
The careers of most Golden Age child stars ended with adolescence. Like Elizabeth Taylor, Natalie Wood finessed the difficult transition to teen and then adult roles, remaining a star every step of the way.
She Had a Controlling Stage Mom
Practically from birth, Natalie was raised to be a movie star by her fiercely ambitious mother, Maria Stepanovna (later Maria Gurdin), who had fled Siberia at the time of the Russian Revolution. As Natalie once said, "My mother used to tell me, No matter what they ask you, always say yes. You can learn later."
She Wasn't Such a Skeptic
Unlike Susan Walker, the precocious second-grader she played in 1947's "Miracle on 34th Street," eight-year-old Natalie thought at first that her co-star Edmund Gwenn—the actor who played Kris Kringle—really was Santa Claus.
Maureen O'Hara Adored Her
The Irish-born actress who played the career-minded single mom in "Miracle on 34th Street" once noted that she had been a movie mother to nearly 40 children. "But I have always had a special place in my heart for little Natalie," O'Hara said. "She always called me Mamma Maureen and I called her Natasha, the name her parents had given her."
Becoming a Teen Star Took Some Doing
At 16, Natalie saw 1955's "Rebel Without a Cause" as her chance to make the leap to more grown-up roles. but director Nicholas Ray was reluctant to cast the former child star—even though "by the time she made her first screen test ... they were lovers," said biographer Gavin Lambert.
A Doctor Called Her a "Juvenile Delinquent"
Although she would be linked with James Dean in "Rebel," in real life Natalie had a fling with Dennis Hopper while continuing her affair with Nicholas Ray. One night she and Hopper went out drinking, crashed a car and landed in an ER. When Ray visited her in the hospital, a doctor referred to Natalie as a "juvenile delinquent." "Did you hear what he called me, Nick?" Natalie recalled saying. "Now do I get the part?"
Her Mom Complained About Dennis Hopper
When Natalie's mother found out about her daughter's affairs, she voiced her displeasure to Warner Bros. executives—but only about Dennis Hopper, not the powerful director Nicholas Ray. "I was furious with [Ray]," Hopper recalled. "The studio came down on me, and he came out of it as pure as snow."
She Was a Valley Girl
Natalie (seen here with her mother and sister Lana) grew up not in Beverly Hills but in a series of San Fernando Valley communities, including Burbank, Northridge and Sherman Oaks. "I never saw film stars at home," she said. "We had no maid, no cook, no swimming pool."
She Was Fluent in Russian
But she spoke her parent's language with an American accent.
Life Magazine Gave Her a New Title
In 1956, eight years after Parents magazine called nine-year-old Natalie "the most exciting juvenile motion picture star of the year," Life upped the ante and named her "the Most Beautiful Teenager in the World."
She Dated Elvis
Elvis was 21 and Natalie just 18, yet she wasn't wowed. "Elvis was so square," she said. "We'd go to P.C. Brown's ice-cream parlor and have hot fudge sundaes.... He didn't drink, he didn't swear. He didn't even smoke. It was like having the date that I never had in high school."
She Studied Ballet
As a child, she took ballet classes with Stephanie Powers and Jill St. John. Like Natalie, both of them were later romantically linked to Robert Wagner.
She Had No Regrets
"I think it's a bore to be sorry you were a child actor.," Wood once said, adding, "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."
Robert Wagner Fell for Her on a Boat
"I remember the instant I fell in love with her," said Wagner. "One night on board a small boat I owned, she looked at me with love, her dark brown eyes lit by a table lantern. That moment changed my life." The couple (seen here at the Academy Awards) married twice, first in 1957 and then, a decade after their divorce, in 1972.
Her Favorite Scent Was Gardenia
It was Barbara Stanwyck's signature scent, and Natalie was drawn to it when, as a child, she co-starred with the Golden Age actress. Stanwyck later gave Natalie a bottle of the perfume, which she wore for the rest of her life. (Interesting footnote: In his memoir, Robert Wagner revealed that he had a four-year affair with Stanwyck, beginning when he was 22 and she 45.)
She Was Afraid of That Bathtub Scene
Wood didn't think she could pull off the famous bathtub scene in "Splendor in the Grass," in which her character becomes wildly hysterical. But director Elia Kazan told her not to worry—he could work around it. She did it in one take.
She and Warren Were a Volatile Pair
Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner split in 1961, and then Natalie hooked up with Warren Beatty, her "Splendor in the Grass" co-star. She wrote in her diary: "After my divorce, I was looking for the Rock of Gibraltar. Instead, I discovered Mount Vesuvius, a live volcano with eruptions each day."
Even So, She Dated Him for Two Years
Wood and Beatty (seen here at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival) stayed together for a surprisingly long time, given that their relationship, as Natalie described it, was "a combination three-ring circus and five-alarm fire."
She Was Kept in the Dark About the Dubbing of Her Voice
Marni Nixon, a ghost singer for actresses in many movie musicals, said that Wood wasn't told that her singing in "West Side Story" would be dubbed. "I don't think Natalie Wood's ego could take that," Nixon told the Washington Post. "Frankly, I think they used to create that kind of attitude too much—allowing [an actress] to have the illusion when they knew all along that she wasn't good enough."
Tony and Maria Didn't Always Have Such Good Chemistry
Off camera, Wood was chilly to her co-star Richard Beymer—some say because Warren Beatty, still her boyfriend at the time, had tried out for the part of Tony.
She Got Three Oscar Nods by Age 25
Wood received Best Actress nominations for "Rebel Without a Cause," "Splendor in the Grass" and "Love With the Proper Stranger," a 1963 romantic comedy co-starring Steve McQueen. But she never won an Academy Award.
Harvard Voted Her "Worst Actress"—an Award She Accepted in Person
In 1966, when the Harvard Lampoon in 1966 named Natalie Wood "Worst Actress of Last Year, This Year and Next," no one expected her to show up for the ceremony. But she did—to wild applause. In the end, writes biographer Gavin Lambert, "a group of undergraduates [hoisted] her on their shoulders and paraded her around the campus."
She Didn't Want to Be Separated From Her Shrink
That's reportedly the reason she turned down the chance to reunite with Warren Beatty in 1967's "Bonnie and Clyde."
She Was Aquaphobic
"I've been terrified of the water," she once said, "and yet it seems I'm forced to go into it on every movie that I make."
The Official Cause of Her Death Was Changed
Beyond the basics—she died in 1981 while sailing off Catalina Island with her husband Robert Wagner and co-star Christopher Walken—the mysterious circumstances of Natalie Wood's death have provoked endless speculation. It didn't help that in 2012 the official cause of death was revised: "Accident drowning" became "Undetermined."
She Was a Dylan Fan
Yacht captain Dennis Davern recalled playing music for Wood during the sail. "I'd throw in the Doors or a Jimmy Buffett tape, but she would say, 'Take that out and put on Dylan.' She loved listening to Bob Dylan."
She Inspired a Don Henley Song
"Dirty Laundry," a Top 10 hit in 1982, expressed Henley's outrage over tabloid-style media coverage of tragedies including Natalie Wood's death.
She Was Tutored by a Bubblegum Expert
In 1947, the year "Miracle on 34th Street" hit theaters, a Texas entrepreneur named Andy Paris cornered the market for Mexican latex and got rich selling bubble gum for a penny a piece. Called "The Bubblegum King" by Life magazine, he was also known for dating Marilyn Monroe—and for teaching Natalie Wood how to blow bubbles.
She Never Forgot the Lessons of Her Childhood
"I was so young, and making movies, going to the studio every morning at dawn, was magic."
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