Nearly four decades since the 1981 drowning death of Hollywood actress Natalie Wood, a one-hour program tonight on the Investigation Discovery Channel’s “American Murder Mystery” series will feature an interview with Grants Pass author and retired Catalina Island harbormaster Doug Oudin.
Set to air at 10 p.m. on Channel 15, “Natalie Wood: an American Murder Mystery” will unveil details uncovered since the case was reopened by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department in 2011.
Wood drowned on Thanksgiving weekend 1981, while boating off Catalina Island in Southern California with her husband, actor Robert Wagner. Just 43 at the time, Wood had a long list of Hollywood credits, including classics “Miracle on 34th Street” and “West Side Story.”
According to various media reports, and Wagner’s own 2008 memoir, “Pieces of my Heart,” Wood and Wagner were moored at Catalina Island, spending the weekend with Christopher Walken, Wood’s then-costar in the movie “Brainstorm,” and boat captain Dennis Davern.
In his book, Wagner wrote that during his trip with Wood and Walken, he became jealous and argued with both of them. Later, Wagner, unable to find his wife, searched the boat along with the captain and noticed the dinghy was missing and said at the time he initially thought she had gone ashore.
Oudin, who served as harbormaster for 25 of the 32 years he spent on Catalina before retiring to the Rogue Valley in 2010, ordered the initial search for the actress and was at Wagner’s side when Wood’s body was discovered floating outside a nearby cavern.
Wood was found floating in a flannel nightgown, scratch marks left on the floating dinghy she likely clung to for hours and with some abrasive marks on her arms and face. Despite being one of the first to arrive on scene to offer help, Oudin said he was not interviewed by law enforcement at the time but was interviewed by law enforcement and media in 2011.
Wood’s official cause of death was changed, in 2011, from “accidental drowning” to “drowning and other undetermined factors.”
Wood was married twice — in 1957 for five years and from 1972 until her death — to Wagner, who is now 88 and was recently named a “person of interest” in the case.
Having published his own memoirs, in 2013, “Between Two Harbors, Reflections of a Catalina Island Harbormaster,” in which a chapter is devoted to Wood’s death, Oudin, now 72, said he never suspected foul play but had concerns about the death but remembers vividly the frustration of getting help searching for Wood.
“It’s been more than 35 years and I still remember it because it was a challenging experience,” he said. “What I remember about it is the search and the frustration I felt especially after she was found deceased. I have always felt a bit badly because I think, if I may have done things differently, it might have had a different result. It was a complicated set of situations.
“The search and rescue team had been on orders of no overtime. We’d tried to call them the day before for something else and they wouldn’t answer. The team was under orders from superiors at L.A. County not to have any overtime so, when Natalie when missing, I didn’t call Baywatch. I called the Coast Guard. I always felt like, if they would’ve been able to come, they would have got there sooner and found her in time.”
Oudin said he is interested to watch the special but held fast to his belief there had not been any foul play involved in Wood’s death. Oudin said the couple had been regulars on Catalina — two to three times per year — and were always happy and friendly.
“My guess was that she was probably trying to move their inflatable boat from one side of the boat to the other so it wouldn’t bang on the hull while she was trying to sleep and, in the process, fell and clung to the boat,” he said.
“My opinion was, and is, that there wasn’t any foul play involved. It was just a tragic accident but one that could have maybe had a different outcome if some things had happened differently.”
Tonight’s program will feature the interview with Oudin in addition to Wood’s sister, Lana Wood; her hairdresser, Ginger Blymer; as well as historians and journalists who followed the case.
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.