Sunday, July 20, 2014

BORN ON THIS DAY: NATALIE WOOD

When I first started getting into classic movies, I never thought much about Natalie Wood. However, as I have watched more of her movies, I thought she was a great child star, and a beautiful actress when she got older. It is sad that Natalie Wood left us so quickly and tragically, but it is great to celebrate her work. Natalie Wood would have been 76 years old today. She was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zacharenko in San Francisco on July 20, 1938, to Russian immigrant parents Nikolai Stepanovich Zakharenko and Maria Stepanovna (née Zudilova; 1912–1996). As an adult, she stated, "I'm very Russian, you know." She spoke both English and Russian with an American accent. Her father was born in Vladivostok and he, his mother, and two brothers, immigrated to Montreal, Quebec, and later to San Francisco. There, he worked as a day laborer and carpenter.

Biographer Warren Harris writes that under the family's "needy circumstances", her mother may have transferred those ambitions to her middle daughter, Natalie. Her mother would take Natalie to the movies as often as she could: "Natalie's only professional training was watching Hollywood child stars from her mother's lap," notes Harris.
Shortly after Wood's birth in San Francisco, her family moved to nearby Sonoma County, and lived in Santa Rosa, California, where Wood was noticed during a film shoot in downtown Santa Rosa. Her mother soon moved the family to Los Angeles and pursued a career for her daughter. Wood's younger sister, Svetlana Zacharenko — now known as Lana Wood — also became an actress and later a Bond girl. She and Lana have an older half sister, Olga Viriapaeff. Though Natalie had been born "Natalia Zacharenko", her father later changed the family name to "Gurdin" and Natalie was often known as "Natasha", the diminutive of Natalia. The studio executives at RKO Radio Pictures, David Lewis and William Goetz, later changed her name to "Natalie Wood".

Wood made her film début a few weeks before turning five during a fifteen-second scene in the 1943 film Happy Land. Despite the brief part, she attracted the notice of the director, Irving Pichel, who remained in contact with Wood's family for two years when another role came up. The director telephoned Wood's mother and asked her to bring her daughter to Los Angeles for a screen test. Wood's mother became so excited at the possibilities, she overreacted and "packed the whole family off to Los Angeles to live," writes Harris. Wood's father opposed the idea, but his wife's "overpowering ambition to make Natalie a star" took priority. According to Wood's sister, Lana Wood, Pichel "discovered her and wanted to adopt her."

Wood, then seven years old, got the part and played a German orphan opposite Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert in Tomorrow Is Forever (1946). Welles later said that Wood was a born professional, "so good, she was terrifying." After Wood acted in another film directed by Pichel, her mother signed her up with 20th Century Fox studio for her first major role, the 1947 Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street; the film made her one of the top child stars in Hollywood. Within a few months after the film's release, Wood was so popular that Macy's invited her to appear in the store's annual Thanksgiving Day parade. The rest is Hollywood history. Wood became the leading teenage star in the 1950s, and then a great leading lady of the 1960s and 1970s. A tragic death in 1981 silenced Wood’s talent, but the films will keep her talent and beauty alive forever…



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