40 years later, the mystery over Natalie Wood’s death endures

Natalie Wood
Natalie Wood in 1981, the year she drowned in the waters off Catalina Island.
(Associated Press)

Forty years ago, actress Natalie Wood drowned off the coast of Catalina Island.

Authorities classified her death as an accident, concluding the 43-year-old star of “West Side Story,” who couldn’t swim, had been drinking the night before she was found floating face-down in the ocean waters.

Her death has been a Hollywood mystery, the topic of tabloid speculation, TV specials and books that explored whether she was the victim of a homicide.


The theory gained dramatic interest a decade ago.

In 2011, 30 years after Wood’s death, Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials reopened the investigation. Then, in 2013, county coroner’s officials changed Wood’s cause of death from “accidental drowning” to “drowning and other undetermined factors.” The new coroner’s report cited fresh bruises on the actress’ arms and knee, along with a scratch on her neck and a scrape on her forehead, as evidence that she might have been assaulted before she drowned.

The new report also noted “conflicting statements” about when Wood disappeared and whether she had argued with her husband, actor Robert Wagner, who — along with Christopher Walken, her co-star in the film “Brainstorm” — were aboard the 60-foot yacht where she was last seen alive on Nov. 28, 1981.

Hours before her death, authorities said, the three actors had had dinner at Doug’s Harbor Reef restaurant in Two Harbors and then returned to the yacht, called the Splendour, where they drank and an argument ensued between Walken and Wagner. According to the new report, Wood went missing about midnight, and an analysis of her stomach contents placed her death around that time. The report said Wagner placed a radio call to report her missing at 1:30 a.m.

PHOTOS: Natalie Wood |1938-1981

Roger Smith, the L.A. County rescue boat captain who helped pull Wood’s body from the water, said he did not receive a call to look for her until after 5 a.m.

The original investigators thought Wood’s body was bruised when she fell off the yacht and struggled to pull herself from the water into a rubber dinghy, whose side bore scratch marks that seemed consistent with that theory. But in the 2013 report, coroner’s investigators noted that nail clippings were not taken from Wood’s body to determine whether she had made the scratch marks, and the dinghy was no longer available to be examined. The coroner thinks Wood died soon after entering the water.


Detectives said more than 100 people contacted authorities after the investigation was reopened. But it became clear that the new probe didn’t provide a big break in the case. Some detectives claimed Wagner knew more than he let on about Wood’s death, an allegation the actor’s attorney denied.

No charges were ever filed, and the department has said it is not sure whether a crime occurred.

“Our biggest challenge is time,” Lt. John Corina of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Homicide Bureau said in 2018. “Many witnesses have passed away, who were on boats nearby. The original investigator has passed away. We’re reaching out one more time to see if people will come forward with information.”

Corina died in 2019.

This article was compiled from The Times archives. Here is a breakdown of Times coverage of the Wood case:

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s investigators say they’re closer to understanding exactly how actress Natalie Wood died while boating off Catalina Island nearly four decades ago, but say they would still like to hear from her husband, Robert Wagner.

Feb. 5, 2018


L.A. County coroner changes Natalie Wood’s cause of death

Jan. 14, 2013

Authorities still want to interview Wagner in reopened Wood probe

Jan. 17, 2013

The mysterious death of Natalie Wood off Catalina Island has sparked more than three decades of speculation about whether it was an accident or murder.

Feb. 1, 2018

The mystery surrounding the 1981 death of actress Natalie Wood has long troubled law enforcement officials while fascinating the public.

Feb. 1, 2018

Robert Wagner initially said Natalie Wood must have drowned while trying to leave their yacht in a small inflatable boat.

Feb. 6, 2018

Mystery of the reopened Natalie Wood case

Nov. 19, 2011


In HBO documentary “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind,” the star’s daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner offers a personal counterpoint to true crime gossip.

May 5, 2020

Natalie Wood’s daughter, actress Natasha Gregson Wagner, has written a memoir of life with the legend and produced an HBO documentary about her career.

May 5, 2020

In ‘Little Sister,’ Natalie Wood’s sibling Lana shares research on Natalie’s drowning, allegations about Kirk Douglas and Sydney Pollack and more.

Nov. 9, 2021