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‘Everything Just Went Out From Under Me,’ Robert Wagner Says Of Learning Natalie Wood Was Dead

A new HBO documentary takes another look at one of the most enduring Hollywood mysteries: the death of actress Natalie Wood.

By Sharon Lynn Pruitt
Natalie Wood Robert Wagner Hbo

More than 30 years after the mysterious death of beloved actress and mother Natalie Wood, her husband, Robert Wagner, has opened up about the night she died in a new documentary.

Wood died at the age of 43 in November 1981, after disappearing during a weekend boating excursion in the Catalina Islands with her husband, Wagner, and their friend, actor Christopher Walken. After a night of partying on a yacht, Wood's body was found floating off the coast of California, according to a BBC News report.

Wood's official cause of death was accidental drowning, but in light of new evidence that emerged in 2012, officials amended her death certificate to state that her cause of death was simply “drowning,” and the circumstances of how she came to drown were "not clearly established."

In HBO's newly released documentary, “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind,” Wagner recounted that fateful night, growing visibly emotional at times.

He and Walken — who was Wood’s co-star in the science fiction film “Brainstorm" — got into an argument one evening on the boat after Walken told Wagner that Wood should continue acting, Wagner recounted. "Brainstorm" was released in 1983, and it was Wood's final film role.

The argument got heated, as Wagner felt that Walken was interfering in his relationship with Wood. Wagner, who had been drinking, smashed a bottle of wine at one point, but he recalled that he eventually calmed down and the two went below deck to retire in their respective cabins.

That’s when Wagner realized that Wood, who he said had gone to bed earlier that night, was not there.

“I went below, and when I went below, she wasn’t there, and so I looked around,” he said. “I looked in the bathroom, she wasn’t in the bathroom, and I went on the aft end of the boat, and the dinghy was gone, and I came back up, and ... I got Dennis [the captain] and Chris, I said, ‘Natalie’s not here. She’s taken off, I guess on the dinghy. I better — did any of you hear it?’ … Nobody heard anything. I didn’t hear anything. … We would have heard it, I believe, if the dinghy had fired up.”

“So I called a shore boat … 'cause I thought, maybe she had gone back to the restaurant, or back to the Isthmus, where there were these little slips where you could put your boat in and go in,” he said, referring to a nearby cove. “The dinghy wasn’t there and she wasn’t there.”

He said that he asked the men at the cove if Natalie was there, but they said that she was not. At that point, Wagner and the others called the shore patrol, who also hadn’t seen anything; they then called in the Coast Guard, who commenced a search. After an excruciating amount of waiting, they were informed that Wood had been found dead, Wagner said.

“Everything just went out from under me,” Wagner said of the moment he first heard the news. “You know … everything just went away from me and we were all stunned, everybody. That night’s gone through my mind so many times, you can imagine.”

Mystery still surrounds Wood's death. In 2011, Dennis Davern, the captain of the boat, said that he lied to police about what he knew of Wood’s death and that he believed Wagner, who he said had argued with Wood that night, was responsible for the actress’ death, according to The Hollywood Reporter at the time.

There was bruising on various parts of Wood's body as well as a scratch on her neck and a scrape on her forehead, suggesting that Wood could have been assaulted before she drowned, according to a 2018 report from the Los Angeles Times.  A detective on the case named Wagner a person of interest, but he has maintained his innocence, with his lawyer stating in 2013 that Wagner was not responsible for his wife’s death.

Davern has doubled down on his previous allegations, claiming that — as he had in his book on the subject — Wagner pushed Wood off of the yacht and to her death, according a 2018 report by The Hollywood Reporter.

In the HBO documentary, which is hosted and co-produced by Wood’s daughter and Wagner’s stepdaughter Natasha Gregson Wagner, Wood’s loved ones spoke out on the speculation that has lasted for years, as well as the accusations that have been levied against Wagner. Gregson Wagner attributed the claims to a public desire for a “media storm.”

“It’s just so transparent to me,” Wagner said. “They can print anything that they want to print today.”

Shortly after Wood’s death, the early theory was that she slipped and fell overboard and was unable to get back onto the boat. During the HBO documentary, Gregson Wagner and Wagner speculated that she was likely trying to re-tie the dinghy because it may have been banging against the boat that night and making a lot of noise.

“When she went out there, it was a slight mist that night, and the assumption is she went out and slipped and hit her head and rolled into the water,” Wagner said. “But there’s always conjecture about someone who’s very famous.”

When asked by his stepdaughter how he feels to have been named a person of interest, Wagner remarked, “I don’t pay much attention to it  … because they’re not gonna redefine me. I know who I am.”

Wagner and Wood were married twice, first in 1957. The couple divorced in 1962, and Wood had her first child with her second husband, producer Richard Gregson, in 1970. 

Gregson and Wood then parted ways in 1972, and Wagner and Wood got remarried again that same year. They had a child together in 1974.

But while Wagner has the support of Wood’s children, there are some who question his actions that night. Wood’s sister Lana said in 2018 that she believes that Wagner has “something to hide,” and she echoed those concerns during an interview with The New York Times the following year.

“Let’s be truthful about who [Natalie Wood] was and how she was,” Lana Wood said. “I am not making judgments. I am not supposing. I’m not doing any of those things. I’m simply looking at facts. Natalie didn’t swim. Her fear of dark water was deeply ingrained.”