Natalie Wood Reopened Case Prompts CBS' '48 Hours Mystery' to Move Up Air Date

Natalie Wood: 1938-1981

Wood is said to have developed a fear of drowning after she was nearly swept into a waterfall when a stunt went wrong on the set of The Green Promise. Well aware of this, director Elia Kazan allegedly tricked her into doing the scenes at the water reservoir for Splendor in the Grass.

The segment will air on Saturday, one week earlier than planned, as boat captain Dennis Davern makes the media rounds and representatives for Wood's husband Robert Wagner accuse Davern of opportunism.

NEW YORK – Susan Zirinsky and her team at the CBS News magazine 48 Hours Mystery will be working well into the night to finish a segment about the death of Natalie Wood that they first started pursuing last summer.

It will air tomorrow at 10 p.m., one week earlier than planned, after the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s office provided the ultimate news hook by announcing Thursday that they would re-open the case.

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“It’s going to be a long night,” Zirinsky told The Hollywood Reporter on Friday. “We’ll be running to air control with that show.”

Wood drowned on Nov. 29, 1981 while boating with her husband Robert Wagner and actor Christopher Walken near Catalina Island. Her death was ruled an accident.

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The 48 Hour Mystery installment is a collaboration with Vanity Fair, which will publish a “bookazine” under the umbrella title “Hollywood Scandals.” In addition to the Wood case, Vanity Fair and CBS also will revisit the stabbing death of Lana Turner’s Mafioso boyfriend Johnny Stompanato and "Miranda," the mystery woman whose phone calls seduced a bevy of Hollywood’s top actors.

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So what was originally scheduled to air Nov. 26, in the middle of the Thanksgiving holiday as empty post-holiday TV calories, has morphed into actual news. 

CBS has interviewed Dennis Davern, captain of Wood and Wagner’s boat the Splendour, and Marti Rulli, Davern’s longtime friend who co-authored with Davern the 2009 book Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour. The CBS crew filmed onboard the Splendour. They’ve also talked to Roger Smith, the paramedic who took Wood’s body to shore; Mart Crowley, a personal friend of Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner; Marilyn Wayne who was on a nearby boat that night; and Detective Duane Rasure of the L.A. Country Sheriff’s department who was the original investigator on the case.

A longtime CBS News producer and ep of 48 Hours, Zirinsky said she knew that Davern and Rulli had taken additional information to the LA County Sheriff’s office and that the authorities were looking at that material.

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“There has to be at least enough interest or pressure to take a look at it,” she says. “Am I going to say that I think there’s a homicide here? Not by a long shot. But it’s an enduring mystery.”

At a press conference today, L.A. County sheriff’s detective John Corina said there was “substantial” and “credible” information to re-open the case, though he noted that Wagner is not a suspect.

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Wagner released a statement yesterday clearly indicating that the family thinks Davern is attempting to profit from his new recollections about the case.

“[We] fully support the efforts of the L.A. County Sheriff's Dept. and trust they will evaluate whether any new information relating to the death of Natalie Wood Wagner is valid, and that it comes from a credible source or sources other than those simply trying to profit from the 30 year anniversary of her tragic death."

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And indeed Davern made the media rounds Friday; appearing on CNN and NBC’s Today where he was grilled by David Gregory about his motives for coming forward. 

“The implication here is that you may be an opportunist,” said Gregory.

“You cannot step away from the fact that it took Dennis Davern a long time to come to his truthfulness,” adds Zirinksy. “You cannot step back from the fact that Dennis Davern accepted money for this story, not from CBS, but earlier on and also wrote a book. And so somewhere in there lies the truth. However, this mystery has gone on for 30 years. It’s time for the sea to give up its secrets.”