Unlike the Tennessee Williams heroine she longed to play, Natalie Wood never had to depend on the kindness of strangers. Everyone in Hollywood and all around the world loved her. When I interviewed her for The New York Times in 1977, she was joyful about the state of both her career and her private life. Four years later, her recurring nightmare of drowning came true. --Guy Flatley


Button-eyed, about to burst into tears, the trembling, pigtailed refugee tugged at the sleeve of a conspicuously expiring, modestly plump Orson Welles. That was 31 years ago, when Natalie Wood, the 7-year-old daughter of a Russian set designer and ballet dancer, began her Hollywood career by stealing scenes from the unsuspecting Welles and a weepy Claudette Colbert in the agreeably schmaltzy “Tomorrow Is Forever.”

In Hollywood, nothing is forever. Still, Natalie Wood, nee Natasha Gurdin, has survived three decades of movie madness with her beauty and brains intact. Nor has she lost her flair for Russian, a fact she will soon prove in “Meteor,” a tale of interplanetary panic in which she will play a multilingual Soviet astrophysicist who pools her scientific know-how with that of American mental heavyweight Sean Connery to save mankind from fiery annihilation. Ronald Neame, who navigated an all-star, topsy-turvy cast through “The Poseidon Adventure,” will direct “Meteor,” working from a screenplay by Stanley Mann.

Wood, one of the busiest movie tots of the 1940’s, matured splendidly and delivered especially persuasive performances in “Rebel Without a Cause,” “The Searchers,” “Splendor in the Grass” and “Love With the Proper Stranger.” Over the last 10 years, however, she has shifted her focus to such non-cinematic concerns as love and marriage and children, appearing in just two movies – the sassy, stunningly commercial “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” and the notably unpopular “Peeper,” which opened and closed with nary a peep. Earlier this season the diminutive star made an impressive comeback on television, playing Maggie to the Brick of her real-life husband, Robert Wagner, in Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” an assignment which stimulated a long-suppressed urge to act on the stage.

“I’ve been talking with Gordon Davidson about doing a play in Los Angeles,” Wood says, “but there’s nothing specific yet. The kind of role I’d like to do is something that is dramatic but has humor, too, something like Gittel Mosca in ‘Two for the Seesaw.’ And, of course, I’d love to play Blanche in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’ The thing that I found so exhilarating about ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ was that we had four and a half weeks to rehearse and then we shot in sequence, just as if we were doing a play. I really had a sense of the whole; it’s so different from films, where you do it all in bits and pieces.”

If her schedule permits, Wood will be applying the bits-and-pieces method to the role of the eternally flighty Billie Burke in a warts-and-all film about Florenz Ziegfeld that Mike Frankovich plans to put into production in November. But first comes “Meteor.” “The girl I play was engaged to an astronaut, but he was killed on re-entry,” says Wood, hinting that “Meteor” may have something more politically pertinent on its mind than the customary sci-fi hi-jinks. “Sean is divorced and has two children, and we are drawn together. But the main point of the movie is that the Americans and Russians must work together to avert a calamity which is about to befall the whole world. One country, acting on its own, is not enough.”

Another socially significant film which Wood is eager to catch is “9/30/55,” about the impact of James Dean’s death on an impressionable college student played by Richard Thomas. “It’s amazing, the fascination Jimmy still holds for so many people. I’m told that there is a play in London now in which one actress plays three women in Jimmy’s life – Elizabeth Taylor, who was with him in ‘Giant,’ and me, and Pier Angeli, with whom he had a relationship. By the standards of that time, Jimmy seemed eccentric, but I didn’t find him strange at all. He was intense and introverted, but he wasn’t into drugs or anything like that. They say he was self-destructive, but I never thought so. We became very close while we were making ‘Rebel Without a Cause,’ and I spent a great deal of time with him. We used to go to lunch together on his motorcycle, and I never regarded that as destructive.”

Hollywood has heaped destruction upon vast armies of innocent child performers, one of whom is not Natalie Wood. “I see nothing harmful about acting, or any work that is fulfilling. I feel good about my life. Whatever brought me to this point must have been good. I don’t remember my childhood unhappily. I was simply doing what I was doing.”