She was born in San Francisco in 1938 to Russian parents, and named Наталья Николаевна Захаренко. You'd think a name like that might hold you back, but she was acting in movies by the age of four.
Her paternal grandfather, who worked in a chocolate factory, was killed in a fight between Red and White Russian soldiers in 1918. Her father was born in Vladivostok, then immigrated to Montreal, then San Francisco. Her mother originally came from Barnaul, in southern Siberia, and grew up in the Chinese city of Harbin, dreaming of becoming an actress or a ballet dancer.
Shortly after she was born, her mother insisted on moving the family to Los Angeles to pursue a career for her daughter, who now "Americanized" her name to Natasha Zacharenko.
She made her film debut with a bit part in a 1943 movie called Happy Land. Two years later she got the part of a German orphan opposite Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert in Tomorrow Is Forever. Welles later commented that the young girl was a born professional, and "so good she was terrifying."
She appeared in 20 films as a child actress, then at age 16 made the transition to a teenage ingenue -- in a role that won her a nomination for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress.
In all, she made over 50 films. Three were with Robert Redford: Inside Daisy Clover (1965), This Property Is Condemned (1966) and a walk-on in The Candidate (1972). She was twice nominated for the Academy Award as Best Actress, but lost out both times. Her first nomination came for her 1961 role opposite Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass,(she lost to Sophia Loren in Two Women) and her second in 1963 playing opposite Steve McQueen in Love with the Proper Stranger. (when she lost to Patricia Neal in Hud.)
Her Best Supporting nomination came in 1955 for her role in Rebel Without a Cause, playing opposite James Dean. Shortly after that, she won the Golden Globe Award as best new actress of the year. She starred in several other top movies, including Marjorie Morningstar, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (she played Carol), and West Side Story, a movie that won ten Oscars, but none for the leading lady, who by now was known as Natalie Wood, playing Maria.
Natalie Wood married actor Robert Wagner in 1957. They divorced in 1962. She married British producer Richard Gregson in 1969. They had one daughter, and then got divorced in 1972. She married Robert Wagner a second time in 1972, and they remained together until her death in 1981, at the age of 43.
It was the day after Thanksgiving. She and her husband and a few friends were anchored off Catalina Island on their boat the Splendour. She reportedly slipped and fell off the yacht. A woman on another boat said she heard cries for help. The cries were answered by someone, who said, "Take it easy, we'll be over to get you."
The cries lasted about 15 minutes altogether, and then ... nothing. Her body was found in the morning; she was wearing a light jacket, a nightgown and socks. There were fingernail scratches on the side of the boat's dinghy, suggesting that Natalie Wood tried to climb back up into the boat.
A lot of partying was going on at the marina that evening. There were reports of arguments between Wagner and the actor Christopher Walken, a guest on the boat that night, who was rumored to be having an affair with Natalie Wood. The ship's captain also claimed he heard Wagner arguing with his wife. The coroner found that Wood had been drinking, perhaps seven or eight glasses of wine, and finally, her death was ruled an accident. More than a thousand mourners attended her funeral, including Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Rock Hudson, Fred Astaire, Elizabeth Taylor and Gregory Peck.
Natalie Wood had her star placed posthumously on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1987. It is located at 7000 Hollywood Blvd.