While she was not as strikingly pretty as her sister Natalie Wood, Lana Wood was a lovely actress and eventually earned something of a name for herself in Hollywood. In the wake of her sister's early life success, Wood struggled somewhat, but finally received a steady and rewarding role on the daytime drama "Peyton Place" (ABC, 1964-69). A curvy contrast to the waif-like Natalie, Lana's dimensions were well-suited to the bad girl persona she adopted through much of her career. When work started to become scarce, she exploited her physique in Playboy, a ploy that helped her be cast in the James Bond adventure "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971). In the most famous assignment of her filmography, Wood played the lovely Plenty O'Toole and was seduced - both on and off the screen - by Sean Connery. However, the actress' problems - including five disastrous marriages and feelings of inferiority to her sister that led to depression and therapy - ultimately played a large part in derailing her acting ambitions. The shocking drowning of Natalie Wood in 1981 thrust Lana back into the spotlight and led to her penning the controversial book Natalie: A Memoir by Her Sister(1984). She was also open about offering her take on the incident, which made headlines again in 2011, following new statements and speculation. While her turn in "Diamonds are Forever" earned Wood lasting cult cachet, she lived in the shadow of her more famous sister, something that continued even after Natalie's death.
Lana Wood was born Svetlana Nikolaevna Gurdin on March 1, 1946 in Santa Monica, CA to Russian immigrant parents, Nikolai and Maria Zakharenko. Thanks to films like "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947), her sibling, Natalia, became a movie star at a very young age under the professional name of Natalie Wood. At the even tenderer age of one, Wood made her first appearance on camera opposite Natalie in "Driftwood" (1947), though her scenes were ultimately cut. More notably, Wood played a younger version of Natalie's character in "The Searchers" (1956), the John Ford/John Wayne collaboration now regarded as one of the finest Westerns ever produced. Although their respective careers were far from over, it turned out to be the last film the sisters made together and because of the nature of the part(s), they shared no scenes. Assignments of any real note did not come for Wood until Daniel Mann's film adaptation of "Five Finger Exercise" (1962), but the actress' personal life was already generating heat. That year, the 16-year-old actress married sometime performer Jack Wrather, Jr., resulting in a union that was annulled a few months later. It was a sign of things to come for Wood, who went through a similar marriage situation just two years later with another man.
Following roles in "The Fool Killer" (1965) and "The Girls on the Beach" (1965), she won a recurring part on the series "The Long, Hot Summer" (ABC, 1965-66), but the William Faulkner-inspired drama only lasted one season. However, Wood was not out of work for long as she was tapped to join the popular soap opera "Peyton Place" (ABC, 1964-69) and appeared periodically over the course of 18 months. In 1967, she wed her third husband, character actor and "Peyton Place" co-star Steve Oliver. Once again, the union was over and done within a matter of weeks and Wood went through the exact same situation yet again with a fourth man not long afterward. She also had flings with more famous personalities on the level of Warren Beatty and Alain Delon, but was nagged by thoughts that she did not measure up to her sister and did not receive the same amount of love from their mother - however overbearing it may have been for Natalie.
In between her rampant personal woes, Wood acted in minor fare like "For Singles Only" (1968) and "Scream Free!" (1969). Even more of note, she successfully jumpstarted her career by posing in a Playboy layout which led to her being cast in the James Bond film "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971), which was an attempt to reboot the series with Sean Connery back in the saddle. As the outrageously named Plenty O'Toole (after revealing her first name to Bond, he infamously replies, "But of course you are"), Wood played a relatively minor role in the action compared to female lead Jill St. John, as some of her scenes were dropped from the finished film. However, as someone who brought "luck" to wealthy high rollers, Wood made quite a visual impression and was well matched with the returning Connery. She later claimed that her steamy sessions with Connery continued on behind-the-scenes, but concluded when the film wrapped.
"Diamonds Are Forever" was a big success worldwide, but that high-profile assignment did not lead to similarly classy assignments. The Walt Disney production "Justin Morgan Had a Horse" (1972) was something of a surprise for Wood in light of her recent work, but did prove that sexy assignments had not limited her in any way. However, the awful drama "A Place Called Today" (1972) had only one benefit for the actress: Wood made co-star Richard Smedley her fifth husband and they had a daughter together. "Games Guys Play" (1974) did her no such favors, nor did the obscure Armenian language movie "Sons of Sassoun" (1975). That year, her marriage to Smedley ended, and though it was her longest at two years, Wood evidently learned her lesson and never made a return trip to the altar again. Periodic guest star roles on such programs as "Baretta" (ABC, 1975-78) and in second rate TV movies like "Nightmare in Badham County" (ABC, 1976) occupied the rest of her time, as did drive-in fare like "Speedtrap" (1977). After the Western "Greyeagle" (1977), Wood took a break from films and aside from a handful of television assignments, little was heard from her until a family tragedy inevitably resulted in a new form of media attention.
On Nov. 29, 1981, 43-year-old Natalie Wood was found dead from drowning off the coast of Catalina Island, leading to an immediate investigation to determine the events leading up to the tragedy. Her husband, actor Robert Wagner, her "Brainstorm" (1983) co-star Christopher Walken, and yacht captain Dennis Davern were questioned by police, with all of the men expressing ignorance as to how she ended up leaving the Wagners' yacht, The Splendour. Refusing to keep quiet for the sake of the family, Wood publicly stated that her sister could not swim and would never have gone near the water under any circumstances due to an intense fear of "dark water," but when the dust settled with no firm answers offered - specifically addressing a possible argument between Wagner and Walken minutes before Natalie disappeared from the boat and the fact that much alcohol was consumed by everyone onboard - the incident was ruled an "accidental drowning." Wood's beloved older sister had simply fallen into the Pacific when attempting to board the dinghy - so said official reports.
A few months after the tragedy, Wood returned to her acting career with a stint on the soap opera "Capitol" (CBS, 1982-87). The tacky horror film "Satan's Mistress" (1982), in which she appeared nude again, also hit the exploitation and drive-in theatre circuits and turned out to be Wood's last motion picture for many years. Turning her attention to a new pursuit, Wood wrote Natalie: A Memoir by Her Sister, which sold well, but was largely panned by critics when it hit store shelves in 1984. Wood was mostly absent from the entertainment world until she served as a co-producer on the miniseries "The Mystery of Natalie Wood" (ABC, 2004), which was directed by Peter Bogdanovich and starred Justine Waddell as her late sibling. When Robert Wagner published his autobiography, Pieces of My Heart: A Life, in 2009, Wood was contacted by the press to air her take on him and reminisce about her sister. After a 28-year hiatus, she also returned to movies, appearing in several low-budget, direct-to-DVD features, beginning with the horror thriller "Renovation" (2010).
Almost 30 years after the tragedy, statements by the yacht's captain Dennis Davern in the press and via his book Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour(2009), prompted Los Angeles authorities to re-open the investigation of Natalie's death. Wood again made the press rounds, expressing great relief that finally investigators were going to dig deeper and look more closely at Wagner's role in the event. After nine additional months of examination, the case's designation was changed from "accidental drowning" to "drowning and other undetermined factors." While the ongoing saga of her sister's death took an emotional toll, other life events also adversely affected Wood. When her uninsured daughter was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, Wood went bankrupt and lost her home trying to pay for the resulting medical expenses. She was also later faced with her own health scare in May 2012 after going into anaphylactic shock, which caused respiratory distress and severe facial swelling after an allergic reaction to some food the actress had consumed.
By John Charles