The Last Film of Natalie Wood

30 Sep 2021

When Hollywood came to the Sandhills, Wood’s shimmering star was dimmed, then lost

By Kevin Lewis

Natalie Wood made her last movie Brainstorm in the Sandhills in October 1981. A month later, she was fished out of the Pacific Ocean around Santa Catalina Island on the Sunday morning after Thanksgiving. Ironically, Miracle on 34th Street, the 1947 film about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and a real Santa Claus, which made her a child star, was being broadcast nationwide throughout the weekend. Her death by drowning is still unsolved, and is the stuff of tabloid trash on its various anniversaries, usually pointing fingers at her then husband Robert Wagner. Wood, Wagner and her co-star Christopher Walken were on the Wagner yacht Splendour, along with its captain, when Wood by Wagner’s account left after an argument with him and disappeared from the boat.

Because I was a reporter for The Fayetteville Observer, and an extra on the film Brainstorm, I became privy to what became the legendary mystique surrounding the death of the star, who though only 43 at the time had been before our eyes for 38 years. Of all the stories I have written over the years, the one story I am asked about most is the mystery of Wood’s death. When I became a feature writer for two Hollywood guilds (the Directors Guild of America and the Motion Picture Editors Guild) beginning in the late 1990s until 2014, I met industry people who shared their own knowledge of the tragedy. But no one, including the Los Angeles Police Department, really knows what happened. If you believe Wagner or Walken, even they don’t know.

Ironically, Wood’s last movie itself is nearly forgotten, and received scant press attention when it was finally released in September 1983. Because her death was on the West Coast, no one realizes it has a Sandhills connection. and it is not recalled by many old timers in Pinehurst or Southern Pines. Even I think of the two days I spent as an extra on the film and as a reporter as an almost unreal yet glamorous experience like Camelot because I grew up watching Wood blossom from an endearing child, to an ideal teenager, to a poised but warm woman. I had always wanted to meet her and I was shocked that a month later I never would have. Wood had a shy sensuality, not an obvious movie star eroticism, that matched women coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s. She was a woman a man hoped to marry, and her marriage to the heart throb Wagner was treated even in Hollywood like a storybook romance. Both times as it turned out. I would not work for Hollywood myself until 1995, after years working in Broadway administration, when I met many of the people who knew Wood. Over the years, I have reconstructed what I saw on the set with what happened a few weeks later.

Besides Miracle on 34th Street, moviegoers saw her earn three Oscar nominations for Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Splendor in the Grass (1961) and Love with the Proper Stranger (1963). Her lasting fame today is for West Side Story (1961). Gypsy (1962) is also a classic, with uncomfortable parallels to her own family situation with her cash-strapped Russian immigrant parents. Natalie, born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko, in San Francisco in 1938, was pushed like Gypsy Rose Lee into a career when she was five years old. Wood never let anyone see the emotional scars she suffered.

By 1981, however, she had not been in a hit movie since Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969), which itself was a comeback after a series of forgettable films throughout the 1960s. Motherhood sidelined her career in the 1970s, when she remarried Wagner in 1972. Natasha Gregson, through Wood’s brief marriage to Richard Gregson, was born in 1970, and Courtney Wagner was born in 1974. Becoming a television star did not interest her, unlike Wagner who was a big television star from 1969 to 1984 because of three slick crime series, It Takes a Thief, Switch and Hart to Hart. Wood made a few made-for-TV movies, and won a Golden Globe for the miniseries From Here to Eternity in 1980. She was even offered the co-starring role in Hart to Hart, which Stephanie Powers ultimately played, but Wagner made clear that he wanted their second marriage to work and he wanted a stable life for the three girls (Katie Wagner was from his marriage to Marion Marshall in the 1960s). During their remarriage they starred together in two television movies, The Affair (1973) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1976).

Wagner, a movie star in the 1950s, was the son of a steel executive in Los Angeles, came from a very stable background and was realistic about “shallow” Hollywood. When movie parts evaporated, he was delighted to become a TV star. After a first marriage to Wood, which ended in 1962 when his movie career was finished and hers was booming, they remarried in 1972 after their second marriages ended and when the career situation was reversed. She was the love of his life, and he was delighted to reclaim her. The Wagners were glamorous, beautiful and rich. With one problem. Natalie could not come to terms with a fading career when she was roughly the same age as, for example, Jane Fonda and Julie Christie whose acting was transitioning into a new gear. Wagner also wanted her to concentrate on their three young daughters.

Wood optioned the film rights of the best-selling biography of Zelda Fitzgerald called Zelda, with hopes that Zelda would finally win her that Academy Award. The problem was she was not presently “bankable”, and the only film offer producer John Foreman could secure for her while Zelda looked for a studio backer was Brainstorm, a science fiction spectacular co-starring three Oscar winners – Walken (The Deer Hunter, 1978), Cliff Robertson (Charley, 1968) and Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975). She also was going to make her stage debut in Los Angeles in 1982 in a revival of the play Anastasia, which won Ingrid Bergman an Oscar for its film version, at the Ahmanson Theater.

Brainstorm began location shooting in September at the Research Triangle Park (RTP). Walken and Fletcher played scientists developing a helmet which could record the thoughts and experiences of the wearer. Robertson played their employer who is going to sell their invention to the military without their knowledge. Wood played the industrial designer wife of Walken who frustrates the plans of Robertson.

Governor James Hunt envisioned this first production in North Carolina to be the beginning of film production in the state. The North Carolina School of the Arts had a filmmaking program and he wanted to train professionals. Raleigh stage actors Ann Lincoln and Ira David Wood III were cast, and other local actors appeared as extras.

By October, the production moved to Pinehurst and Southern Pines, with scenes at then Pinehurst Resort and the horse farm of Joe Bryan, Jr. Many local people were invited to be extras at three dollars an hour. Some local actors, such as Bill Watson and Pat Watson were cast, as well as journalist Cos Barnes, former Broadway actress Kay (Lyder) Stoffel, and the niece of Harry Houdini, Marie Blood and her husband Forrest Blood. Socialites with good wardrobes were hired as party guests for the barn party at Joe Bryan’s. Some prize horses appeared with champion riders to complement Robertson, who played a skilled horseman.

Because I had some stage training, I was asked to perform a stunt which frankly could have killed me. I knew Robertson because I was property master on a pre-Broadway revival of Angel Street, starring his then wife Dina Merrill in 1975. I played a thoughtless party guest who ran in front of the galloping horse ridden by Robertson who reared the horse up within 10 feet of me. I performed this stupid act in two takes, running through fresh horse manure in a powder blue Pierre Cardin suit.  

All of this was for naught, because the heavy Carolina rains caused a rewriting of the script and the outdoor footage was scrapped. Instead we moved indoors. And here is where I met Wood. I was 30 then and far younger than the senior citizens who were the majority of the extras. I heard a whispered “Excuse me” at my back, as Wood brushed past me and smiled. Wood was very petite, only 5’1”, in stiletto heels, but the most perfectly proportioned figure I had ever seen. In her Donfeld garden party gown, she reminded me of a toy ballerina atop a girl’s curio box.

The director Douglas Trumbull was an Oscar-nominated special effects inventor for such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) but except for Silent Running (1972) he was not a director. Wood told him that the extras were looking at her, to which he replied, “But Natalie, they’re guests at your party,” missing the point that extras are background people, meaning scenery, having private conversations. Robertson had similar problems getting direction from Trumbull.

Walken was in his own orbit, taking 95 takes for a “Let’s party” line. The crew paired him with Marie Blood, Houdini’s niece, who had performed with her uncle as a child shimmy dancer in 1925, to find his way out of the scene. If you can imagine Walken with Doris Roberts (whom she resembled) cuddling up, you will know Marie saved the day. To show his gratitude, the assistant director Patrick Cosgrove put Marie in four other scenes which ultimately were edited out of the movie.

The fourth star, Louise Fletcher, had her big scenes at RTP, so she had plenty of time for me to interview her. Fletcher, who had won her Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest five years before, had the major scene in the film. She has a heart attack while working alone at the laboratory on the electrode helmet, and has the presence of mind to put it on during her ultimately fatal attack. Cast as the scientist, Walken puts on the helmet through which he can actually experience her death. Because of this, the unscrupulous corporate head, played by Robertson, wants to secretly sell it to the military.

The extras made little money but we were invited to a mini-Hollywood “wrap party.” Wood, attired in tight black satin pants and a V-neck black wool sweater, served us Andre Champagne and even autographed the empties. When she served Marie Blood, Wood asked, “Do you want an autograph?” Blood said, “What would I do with an autograph? I just want to hold you.” They embraced and Wood laughed, her warmth bubbling through.

Because I was there as a reporter, I approached her to take notes. She was polite and gracious after 12 hours of filming, and when I asked her about her future plans, she said she would start rehearsals for Anastasia in Los Angeles when Brainstorm stops shooting in two weeks.

On November 29, three weeks later, Brainstorm was nowhere near completion the day Wood died, including scenes involving her. It must have been a troubled production because MGM, which was undergoing a merger with United Artists to become MGM/UA, was readily resigned that her death could be an excuse to cancel production and collect the Lloyd’s of London insurance money. Trumbull fought this, telling Lloyd’s that he had enough scenes with Wood to complete the film. Lloyd’s refused to pay off. Interestingly, Trumbull used Natalie’s sister Lana as a stand-in for the missing scenes, and assigned other Wood lines to a character played by actor Joe Dorsey. The film was released in 1983 to mixed reviews and a small number of theaters, including a premiere of sorts at the long demolished Cinema I and II in Aberdeen, now a KIA showroom. Trumbull never directed again and continued as a special effects innovator, ultimately winning two Sci-Tech Oscars.

An unfortunate legacy of Natalie Wood is not her long movie career but a trashy whodunit involving her husband and Walken. Whatever happened that night, no one will ever really know or confirm. I get calls from the Los Angeles police department whenever the cold case is reopened because I wrote a national feature story for Films in Review. Briefly, Wagner and Wood, another couple and Walken decided to spend the Thanksgiving weekend on the Wagner yacht Splendour off Santa Catalina Island in the Pacific Ocean. The other couple canceled out, leaving Wagner and Wood with Walken. Wagner, suspicious of gossip reports in October about his wife spending time with Walken, took a brief hiatus from the set of Hart to Hart to visit her. While in Pinehurst, Wagner played golf with Bill Jones, the bartender at the Pine Crest Inn, and dined with Wood at Jacques, the long shuttered French restaurant where Dugan’s is today.

The final night Wagner and Wood spent together was their own version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The whole weekend showed questionable judgment by the couple. Wagner had a personality conflict with Walken. For Wood, acting with Walken was like a return to her days with James Dean. Wood displayed erratic behavior throughout the weekend, once leaving the yacht with Walken on the yacht’s dinghy to go to Doug’s on Catalina for dinner without informing Wagner except in a note. Wagner had shore patrol pick him up to join them. They drank a lot of wine before they returned together to Splendour. Wagner lost his temper with Walken because Walken reportedly suggested Wood concentrate on a more serious movie career instead of children. Walken and his wife Georgianne had no children to raise, and the Wagners had three growing girls, aged 7 to 17. Wagner apparently smashed the wine bottle he was serving from and told Walken, “Why the f--- don’t you stay out of her career? She’s got enough people telling her what to do without you.” Wood went downstairs. Wagner went once to see her, but she remained in their bathroom while she brushed her hair, already in a nightgown.

Wagner returned to Walken to gloss over a bad situation, and Walken went to bed. Wagner stayed up with the yacht captain Dennis Davern. He was alarmed when Wood was not in her room. After a search, the captain called shore patrol. At 5:30 am, they found the dinghy in a cove with the key in the “off” position. Soon after they found the floating, long dead Wood. The distraught Wagner raised his children, ultimately marrying Jill St. John in 1990. Despite tabloid gossip, and books by Davern and Lana Wood accusing him of pushing Natalie overboard, Wagner lost no friends or popularity. His stepdaughter Natasha Gregson Wagner even produced a documentary exonerating him.

Over the years, I speculated on what happened along with most of the world. I asked Roddy McDowall, her long time close friend, what happened. “Tell me what you think,” he told me, “And I’ll tell you if it’s true. But I won’t tell you what I know.” Through my friend Howard Mandelbaum, I found out what his close friend, Mart Crowley, the playwright of The Boys in the Band, Natalie’s closest friend and a co-producer of Hart to Hart, knew about the case. “Everybody drank too much,” Crowley told my friend.

My personal opinion is that alcohol played a big part in the tragedy. To my thinking she lost her balance as she tried to retie the banging dinghy, causing her to go overboard. I also believe that the disoriented, drunken Wood, despondent over the filming of Brainstorm, feeling pressure about the upcoming play, which was to be her American stage debut, plus dealing with the weekend's tension between the two men, simply didn't have the strength to resist the undertow of the ocean.

Kevin Lewis will present an illustrated lecture at Bradford Performing Arts Center (BPAC), Sandhills Community College, on October 14 at 7:30pm on the mystery of Natalie Wood and Brainstorm called When Hollywood Came to the Sandhills.

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