Natalie Wood—and Five Other Mysterious Hollywood Deaths

Shocking new probe into West Side Story star's death puts saga alongside cases of TV's Superman, Bruce Lee, Tupac Shakur and more

By Joal Ryan Nov 18, 2011 6:50 PMTags
Natalie Wood, Robert WagnerAP Photo/Steve Wood

No, some cases are never closed.

When the following roundup of mysterious Hollywood demises originally ran in 2010, Natalie Wood's 1981 death was considered but ultimately not included because decades on, the official story of an accidental drowning, though doubted by some, had stood without serious challenge.

Enter, or reenter, homicide investigators and the boat captain who now says he holds Robert Wagner responsible for the actor's then-wife's death. 

Suffice to say, the Wood saga will now go down in the books with these other cases: 

1. George Reeves: When authorities judged that TV's Superman, despondent over his stalled career, died June 16, 1959, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, Reeves' unsatisified mother launched her own investigation. The 1996 book Hollywood Kryptonite picked up where Helen Bessolo left off, making the case that Reeves' well-connected ex-lover, Toni Mannix, ordered a hit on Reeves. The 2006 Ben Affleck film Hollywoodland decided on being undecided.       

Ron Galella/WireImage; Chris Walter/WireImage

2. Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls: The rap giants were slain by drive-by gunfire less than six months apart—Shakur in September 1996 in Las Vegas, Smalls in March 1997 in Los Angeles. Conspiracy theories about who was behind the respective murders outnumber the police-identified suspects by about a million to zero. To date, no arrests have been made in connection with either shooting.

3. Bob Crane: On June 29, 1978, the 1960s sitcom star (Hogan's Heroes) was found bludgeoned in his Scottsdale, Ariz., apartment. And while Crane's friend John Henry Carpenter fell under immediate suspicion, an arrest did not follow until 1992. A jury acquitted Carpenter of murder charges in 1994; Paul Schrader's 2002 biopic, Auto Focus, starring Greg Kinnear, reached a different verdict. Carpenter died in 1998. "I think John Carpenter was the kind of guy that had a secret, and he took it to his grave with him," a police investigator told the Arizona Republic

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4. Heath Ledger: The Oscar-winner's death at age 28 is not the usual Hollywood mystery in that the cause appears cut-and-dried. Ledger's Jan. 22, 2008, passing at his New York apartment was ruled an accidental prescription-drug overdose. But the toxicology findings did not answer the ultimate question: Why? As in similar tragedies, the answer is one that can never really be known.

5. Bruce Lee: The martial artist's shocking, sudden death on July 20, 1973, was not going to be easy to explain. Lee was after all so fit, so vital and so young—just 32. Any number of theories abounded, including marijuana-induced brain swelling. Following an inquest, coroner officials in Hong Kong settled on death by "misadventure," meaning accident and/or a possible bad reaction to headache medicine. The official story did not quell talk of everything from a conspiracy to a curse. The tragic on-set 1993 death of Lee's actor son, Brandon Lee, at age 28, provided ample fuel for the latter.    

(Originally published June 4, 2010, at 6:20 a.m. PT)