- The circumstances around Natalie Wood’s 1981 death have long been the focus of intense speculation.
- The actress was yachting with her husband and co-star Christopher Walken when she disappeared and drowned.
- In an interview, Natalie’s sister, Lana Wood, told Insider that she doesn’t hold Walken responsible.
The 1981 drowning death of actress Natalie Wood has long been one of Hollywood’s most persistent mysteries.
Now, 40 years after the tragedy off the coast of Santa Catalina Island, Natalie’s younger sister, Lana Wood, 75, is diving back into the unsolved case in her new memoir, “Little Sister: My Investigation into the Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood.”
But in a book that frequently accuses and alleges — Natalie’s husband Robert Wagner takes the brunt of the blame, though the authorities who initially investigated Natalie’s death and the famed celebrity coroner who classified her death as “accidental drowning,” face Lana’s fury as well — there is one familiar face whom Lana says she does not hold responsible for the tragedy: Christopher Walken.
Lana told Insider the award-winning actor has continued to prove helpful amid the ongoing investigation into Natalie’s death, albeit privately.
A mysterious drowning death
The Oscar-nominated Natalie, who starred in Hollywood hits like “West Side Story” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” was 43 when her body was found floating in the ocean off Catalina Island on Thanksgiving weekend in 1981. She had been vacationing on a yacht with her husband, Robert [RJ] Wagner, her “Brainstorm” co-star and friend Walken, and the ship’s captain, Dennis Davern.
Los Angeles County coroner Thomas Noguchi ruled her death an accidental drowning, noting her blood alcohol content was 0.14%, and suggesting the actress may have slipped into the freezing water while trying to tie up the vessel’s dingy.
But Lana was skeptical of the proposed explanation due to Natalie’s lifelong fear of “dark waters,” claiming her sister never would have attempted to re-board the vessel’s dinghy on her own in the middle of the night.
In 1992, more than a decade after Natalie’s death, the yacht’s captain, Dennis Davern, contacted Lana, admitting that he hadn’t originally told police everything he knew about that fateful night. He alleged the holiday had been tense from the start and remembered Wagner expressing anger about Natalie inviting Walken on the trip. The captain also told Lana that he heard Wagner and Natalie fighting at the back of the boat before learning Natalie had gone missing.
Davern’s admissions to Lana came around the same time she gained access to the original police report, sparking her own investigation into the incident. According to Lana, she was struck by a number of elements, including reports that both Wagner and Walken had been interviewed by authorities for less than 10 minutes in the immediate aftermath of Natalie’s death as well as witness statements that appeared to have been dismissed by the initial investigators.
In 2009, a crowdsourced petition, spurred by Davern’s new revelations and Lana’s amateur sleuthing, called for a new investigation into Natalie’s death, and two years later, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reopened Natalie’s case, citing “additional information.”
Decades of silence
Despite having already won an Oscar for his 1978 performance in “The Deer Hunter,” Walken was a relative newcomer to Hollywood when the then-38-year-old accompanied Natalie and Wagner on their Thanksgiving holiday in 1981. In the decades since her death, Walken, now 78, has rarely spoken publicly about that night.
Five years after Natalie’s death, Walken told People: “I don’t know what happened. She slipped and fell in the water. I was in bed then. It was a terrible thing.”
“Look, we’re in a conversation I won’t have. It’s a fucking bore,” he added.
The few times he has spoken publicly about her death, the actor has maintained it was an accident, telling Playboy Magazine in 1997 that Natalie had gone to bed before the men and reiterating the coroner’s dingy theory, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
“The people who are convinced that there was something more to it than what came out in the investigation will never be satisfied with the truth. Because the truth is, there is nothing more to it,” Walken told the outlet.
In a 2020 HBO Documentary produced by Natalie’s daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Natalie’s husband, Robert Wagner admits that he and Walken fought about Natalie’s career on the night she disappeared.
But despite Walken’s longtime public silence on the matter, Lana told Insider that the actor has spoken with the current detectives working Natalie’s reopened case.
“He did tell them everything he witnessed and he knows,” she said. “However, he made them promise that they would never reveal anything that he has said.”
Lana, who has worked closely with the LASD detectives working the case, said the investigators didn’t even tell her what Walken disclosed in order to honor their agreement.
“All they told me was that they did speak to him,” she said. “[The detective] said he told them everything.”
A representative for Walken did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment or confirmation regarding Lana’s claims about the actor, nor did a spokesperson with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
But a detective for the sheriff’s department previously told Insider that Natalie’s death is still considered suspicious, given the remaining unanswered questions.
“Her husband at the time, Robert Wagner, is the last known person to be with Ms. Woods [sic] prior to her death, and Investigators would like to interview him,” Detective Ralph Hernandez said in a statement. “The goal of the investigation is to confirm the truth of how she ended up in the water, thus providing the manner of her death.”
The case will remain open until it is solved, he added.
A representative for Wagner did not respond to Insider’s request for comment. The 91-year-old has previously denied wrongdoing in Natalie’s death.
Lana’s memoir, which was released last week, delves into the sisters’ adolescence in Hollywood, as well as the aftermath of Natalie’s death, as the younger sister attempts to set the record straight on Natalie’s life and death, and keep her memory alive — “not simply as a movie star, but as a person who had a full life.”