They were two of the biggest stars in Hollywood history. But Robert Redford and Natalie Wood had an interesting history beyond the big screen. The two first met as teenagers, at Van Nuys High School in California — and let’s just say, their initial encounter was not a friendly one.
Redford, hot-shot athlete, graduating senior, and, yes, senior class golden boy, was on duty as a school assembly guard, standing guard at one of the entrances to the auditorium, when Wood, late for registration, raced up to him, pleading to be let in. Redford said nothing doing.
As he recounted to Suzanne Finstad in her biography of the actress, Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood: “There were about four or five doors going all the way around the oval-shaped auditorium, and each door had an alphabetical sequence over it — A through F, G through L. … We were all ready to shut the doors and this little girl comes running down — tiny little thing — and wants to come in the door.
And I was just being a complete jerk. I said, ‘Hold on. What’s your name?’ I didn’t have a clue who she was. … I said, ‘Hold it,’ and then it becomes sort of this machismo bull****: ‘Where are you going?’— giving her a hard time.”
Wood, of course, starts with a W, and Redford wouldn’t budge, sending her to the other side of the auditorium. Meanwhile, another student, standing with Redford, recognized the movie star and was silently freaking. Wood, more than a little miffed, called Redford an SOB and walked away.
The two wouldn’t cross paths again for ten years, when Wood and her Splendor in the Grass co-star (and then-boyfriend) Warren Beatty stopped backstage to meet Redford, after catching his performance in the Broadway play Sunday in New York. (And no, Wood claimed she didn’t remember the high school rebuff.)
Redford, who was making a name for himself as a young actor on the rise, had been on Wood’s radar for some time, and she convinced studio honchos to cast him in the role that launched his movie career, playing a closeted movie star in 1964’s Inside Daisy Clover.
The two hit it off during filming and would remain good friends for years. “I think that Natalie, underneath everything, was a very sweet, genuinely down-to-earth person who was slightly colored by the warped life of being a star at such an early age,” Redford would say, years later. “But she herself, as a human being, shone through that. She was a real person. And I responded to that.”
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The two would team up once again in 1966’s This Property Is Condemned. Wood also appeared in the 1972 political drama, The Candidate, when her old friend asked her to do a cameo. Wood and Redford lost touch shortly after that. Their last encounter was in 1980 when Redford was trying to cast his directorial debut, the gut-wrenching drama Ordinary People, about a family torn apart by a young son’s passing.
Wood, whose career had cooled by this time, coveted the role of the cold, distant mother (which eventually would go to Mary Tyler Moore), but Redford didn’t think she was right for the role.
Just a year later, on November 29, 1981, Wood would drown off the coast of Catalina. Redford was heartbroken. Not only did he like Wood immensely — he was grateful to the actress for giving him his big break and launching a career that’s lasted till this very day.