12 Tragic Facts About the Life and Death of Natalie Wood

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From scene-stealing child star to sexy ingénue, Natalie Wood (July 20, 1938 – November 29, 1981) captured the hearts of millions on and off the screen with her infectious laugh and enchanting eyes.

One of Hollywood’s most beloved icons, the petite brunette beauty gave us some of the most emotionally charged performances in cinematic history in films including Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story. It’s been nearly 40 years since Wood’s tragic and untimely death, but her star power has stayed.

Natalie Wood would have turned 81 on July 20. To honor her, here are 12 facts you may not know about the brilliant actress who could make audiences laugh, cry and sympathize.

1. She Never Really Had a Childhood

Starting her career at just 5 years old, Natalie was often the victim of her overbearing mother’s attempts to fulfill her own dreams of stardom. Wood’s mother played a significant role in her daughter’s early career, coaching her and micromanaging aspects of her career even after Wood acquired agents.

After the huge success of Miracle on 34th Street, Natalie was working pretty much nonstop with over 20 films under her belt by the time she was 14. As a child actress, Wood received significant media attention. By age nine, she had been named the “most exciting juvenile motion picture star of the year” by Parents.

2. Teenage Troubles

As a young Hollywood actress in the 1950s, Wood was vulnerable to older men in the industry. In ‘Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood,’ author Suzanne Finstad writes that Wood was raped by a “prominent, married actor-producer” but was warned never to mention the name of her attacker. At the age of 15-years-old, she was also romantically linked to Frank Sinatra.

When director Nicholas Ray was searching for a female lead in his film Rebel Without a Cause. Later in an interview, Wood revealed that she was involved in a car crash with her boyfriend at the time, actor Dennis Hopper, and Ray had come to visit her in hospital. She revealed the doctor called her a “goddamn juvenile delinquent.” She then yelled at Ray, “Did you hear what he called me, Nick? He called me a goddamn juvenile delinquent! Now do I get the part?”

3. Phobia of Water

The fortune teller her mother had met in China prior to her birth also predicted that Wood would die in a drowning accident. Since her mother repeated this, Wood has always suffered from a phobia of water and even struggled with washing her own hair.

Aged 10-years-old, she was filming a scene for the 1949 film The Green Promise and the script called for her to cross a bridge. The crew had rigged the bridge so that once she reached the other side it would collapse into the raging river below. She then suffered her worst fear – the bridge collapsed early and threw her into the water. Instead of helping the petrified young actress, director William D. Russell told the crew, “Keep the cameras rolling” as Wood struggled with a broken wrist.

Later aged 14-years-old, whilst filming The Star with Bette Davis in 1952, the script was changed and she was ordered to hump off the back of a boat. Wood became hysterical but was told either to jump or lose her role.

4. She Always Wore Bracelets to Cover Up an Old Injury

While filming The Green Promise in 1949, a scene called for the young actress to run across a bridge that would then collapse. The stunt didn’t go as planned, and Natalie ended up with a broken arm. Her wrist never healed quite right, so she always concealed a protruding bone with large bracelets.

5. She Hated Her Stage Name

Natalie was born Natasha Nikolaevna Zacharenko on July 20, 1938, but as was common back in her early career, a studio executive changed it to the one we’re used to seeing on her film credits.

According to Natalie and R.J.: The Star-Crossed Love Affair of Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, she said at one point, “I didn’t mind Natalie, but I hated ‘Wood.’ It didn’t suggest a nice image to me.”

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