Who Was Natalie Wood?

For many, Wood was the beautiful face of a post-war America, filled with the children of immigrants who were growing up in a time of explosive change

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Carey Berglund does a retrospective on the life of the Hollywood star.

    Considering that it’s been more than 60 years since actress Natalie Wood charmed film-goers as a child in the now-classic Christmas movie, “Miracle on 34th Street,” audiences can be forgiven for not really knowing who she was.

    But for a generation, Wood’s was the beautiful face of a time when many young Americans had the dark hair and dark eyes of immigrants from war-torn countries around Eastern Europe, and the country was exploding with change.

    A small child during and after World War Two, she was just the right age to play a girl – and eventually a young woman – tackling the challenges of the post-war era.

    Wood was born in San Francisco in 1938, the daughter of Russian immigrants Maria and Nicholas Zakharenko. Her name, Natasha, became Natalie for her acting jobs. Her film debut was a brief appearance at age four in the film “Happyland,” released in 1943, in which she plays a small child who drops an ice cream cone, according to the film industry website IMDB.

    News Conference: Natalie Wood Case

    [LA] News Conference: Natalie Wood Case (Raw Video)
    Authorities hold a news conference regarding their decision to reopen the Natalie Wood investigation.

    As a child actor, she was best known for “Miracle on 34th Street,” (1947) though she also appeared in the Orson Welles film “Tomorrow is Forever” (1946) and others.

    As a teen in 1955, she gave a star turn in “Rebel Without a Cause,” opposite a 24 year-old James Dean and a 16-year-old Sal Mineo.

    In 1961, she starred in two major films, “Splendor in the Grass” and “West Side Story,” cementing her in the consciousness of film-goers of that era. In 1969, she played Carol in the film "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice."

    She struggled with depression, and once attempted to commit suicide. Wood biographer Suzanne Finstad told NBC LA's Cary Berglund that Wood, who grew up in Hollywood's studio system, found it difficult to be true to herself and her own desires.

    She made fewer films during the 1970s, when her children were small and public interest in her seemed to be on the ebb, said Finstad, who wrote the book, "Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood." But her goal was to return to the screen in middle age as a serious actor.

    When Wood died, in 1981, conspiracy theories flourished about how she came to drown off the coast of Santa Catalina Island while on an overnight yachting trip with her husband, the actor Robert Wagner, and friend, the actor Christopher Walken. 

    On Thursday, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department said it was re-opening its investigation into her death, after the captain of the yacht, Dennis Davern, said he had lied about what happened.