The death of actress Natalie Wood has fueled speculation for four decades because it happened under mysterious circumstances that were initially called an “accidental drowning” but later changed to “drowning and other undetermined factors.” Now in the new HBO documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, her daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, talks to Robert Wagner, Natalie’s husband and Natasha’s adopted father, about the fateful night in 1981.
Here is what Wagner says happened and why Natasha doesn’t think he was responsible.
Wagner Says Wood Went Below Deck During an Argument and That Was the Last Time He Saw Her
Wagner’s recounting of the night Wood died is that he, Wood, and her recent co-star Christopher Walken returned to their yacht after having dinner on Catalina Island. He and Walken argued about Wood putting her career ahead of her family, and Wagner admits that he smashed a wine bottle out of anger.
At that point, Wood went below deck to go to bed, and allegedly, no one saw her alive again. Wagner discovered her missing around 1 a.m. and called the shore boat, then later the Coast Guard. Her body was recovered early the next morning, Sunday, November 29, 1981.
Wagner says in the documentary that he assumed she went out to “retie the dinghy” and he and Gregson Wagner recall that Wood hated the way it would bang against the side of the boat.
“I remember it used to drive her crazy… because the way the water hit up against the boat, it would bang and she was so sensitive to noise,” says Gregson Wagner.
“When she went out there, there was a slight mist that night and the assumption is she went out there and slipped and hit her head and rolled into the water,” says Wagner.
Gregson Wagner Says It’s Important To Her That People Stop Thinking Wagner Was Responsible
Gregson Wagner, who is a producer of the documentary, says, “It’s important to me, daddy, that people think of you the way that I know that you are. It bothers me that anyone would ever think that you would be involved in what happened to her because you would have given your life for my mom.”
“That’s true, I would have. We all would have,” says Wagner, adding, “I don’t pay very much attention to [the speculation], Natasha. They’re not going to redefine me. I know who I am.”
Wagner also wants to make it clear he doesn’t think Walken was involved.
“That night’s gone through my mind so many times, as you can imagine. Chris was there with me — he, by the way, is a very stand-up guy, a gentleman. A true gentleman,” says Wagner. He also says, “I don’t think there’s a day that has ever gone by in my life that there hasn’t been a moment that I haven’t thought about Natalie and how much she meant to me in my heart, in my soul.”
Wood’s Sister Thinks Wagner Was Involved
Natalie’s younger sister, Lana Wood, has always thought Wagner was involved. According to a Vanity Fair profile on her, she once wrote a letter to the Los Angeles District Attorney that said, “Why, year after year, is this man [Wagner] allowed his lies, allowed to move out of the state, allowed to refuse to meet and speak to the detectives continually! Ask yourself if an innocent man who has lost his wife is usually this reticent.”
Then in a 2018 interview on The Dr. Phil Show, Lana said, “I think the investigation was mishandled from the beginning. Conspiracy is a bit far-fetched but were things covered up and overlooked purposefully? I’m sure they were.”
However, both Natasha and her sister Courtney think Lana is simply wrong.
“The whole thing with Lana, I just — I don’t even think she believes what she’s saying, I just think she’s angry. And I can understand that … but when I just think about my dad having to deal with any of this stuff, it’s just so hard to even imagine when he experienced a true nightmare,” says Courtney in the documentary.
Natasha adds, “She has literally accused my dad of killing my mom when that’s the farthest thing from the truth.”
The Investigation Named Wagner a Person of Interest in 2018
In 2011, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department reopened the case after Dennis Davern, the captain of Wagner’s yacht, told NBC News that he initially lied about the events of that night.
“I made some terrible decisions and mistakes. I did lie on a report several years ago … We didn’t take any steps to see if we could locate her. I think it was a matter of, ‘We’re not going to look too hard, we’re not going to turn on the searchlight, we’re not going to notify anybody right now.'”
When asked if he thought Wagner was responsible for Wood’s death, he said, “I would say so, yes.”
Over the course of the investigation, the L.A. County Coroner changed Wood’s cause of death from “accidental drowning” to “drowning and other undetermined factors,” due to the bruises on her right forearm, left wrist, and right knee, a scratch on her neck and a scrape on her forehead. They were included in the original report, but the original coroner said at the time that they were caused by falling off the yacht and struggling to get into the rubbery dinghy.
There was also a rescue worker named Roger Smith who helped pull Wood’s body out of the water who said they weren’t called until 5 a.m.
“There’s no question in my mind that he just delayed calling for us,” Smith said, referring to Wagner.
In 2018, 48 Hours broadcast a special about Wood’s death and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department told them that Wagner was now a “person of interest” in her death after reopening the investigation in 2011.
“We have not been able to prove this was a homicide. And we haven’t been able to prove that this was an accident, either,” said Detective Ralph Hernandez. “The ultimate problem is we don’t know how she ended up in the water.”
In the documentary, there is footage of Walken giving an interview in 1983 to Entertainment Tonight in which he says we’ll never know what really happened.
“The real story of her death is that she drowned and nobody knows how she drowned or what happened except her,” said Walken.
Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind airs Tuesday, May 5 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO and HBO Latino. It will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, May 6 at noon ET on HBO and HBO Latino; on May 6 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO2, on May 10 at 11:30 a.m. ET on HBO and HBO Latino, and Monday, May 11 at 1:30 p.m. ET on HBO.