Natalie Wood was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko in San Francisco, California on July 20, 1938. Her parents, Nikolai and Maria, were both Russian Orthodox immigrants and they changed their last name to Gurdin to simplify it. Natalie started acting as a child with her first major role in 1947's "Miracle on 34th Street".
Natalie's mother was very controlling of her personal life and acting career throughout her youth. Her sister, Lana, was also a child actress, led by their mother. At the age of 16, Natalie was given her first leading role in 1955's "Rebel Without a Cause". Starring alongside James Dean and Sal Mineo, Natalie lit up the screen and became an overnight celebrity. Some claim that she won the role by sleeping with the director, Nicholas Ray, and costar Dennis Hopper. She was nominated for that year's Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, but did not win it.
In 1961, Natalie Wood starred in Elia Kazan's "Splendor in the Grass". In the film, she plays Deanie Loomis, a middle class girl that is dating a rich boy named Bud Stamper, portrayed by Warren Beatty. Her performance was very emotional and edgy, leading her to another Academy Award nomination, this time for Best Actress.
That same year, Natalie starred in the film version of the famous Broadway play, "West Side Story". In the film, she plays Maria, a love interest of a gang member. However, this time the Academy Award nomination went to her costar, Rita Moreno. Her singing in the film was also dubbed by Marni Nixon.
In 1963, Natalie received another major role as the female lead in Robert Mulligan's "Love With The Proper Stranger". In the film, she portrayed a woman named Angie Rossini, who gets impregnated by musician Rocky Papasano, played by Steve McQueen. Her performance was once again nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress.
With her new stardom came plenty of celebrity male suitors. She was most noted and envied for her relationship with Elvis Presley, but she also dated Warren Beatty, Dennis Hopper, Raymond Burr, Nick Adams, Michael Caine, and Tab Hunter. However, it was later revealed that many of these dates were prearranged by the movie studios in order to help promote films. In fact, some of the actors were closeted homosexuals or bisexuals, such as Tab Hunter, Raymond Burr, and Nick Adams.
In the end, she decided to marry actor Robert Wagner. They first became romantically involved in 1956 and were married on December 28, 1957. However, their marriage became a downward spiral due to financial problems and they divorced on April 27, 1962. The pair reconciled in 1971 and remarried on June 16, 1972.
On November 29, 1981, Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner were out on their yacht, "Splendor", with guest Christopher Walken. They were sailing near Catalina Island at night when Natalie fell off and drowned. The death was ruled accidental and no charges were filed.