Wood was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zacharenko in San Francisco to Russian immigrant parents Nikolai Stepanovich Zakharenko and Maria Stepanovna (née Zudilova; 1912–1996). Wood also dated actors Michael Caine Steve McQueen Tony Curtis Warren Beatty Dennis Hopper singer Elvis Presley director Henry Jaglom and politician Jerry Brown. Wood said Natalie Wood had had a crush on Wagner since Natalie Wood was a child and on her 18th birthday Natalie Wood went on a studio-arranged date with the 26-year-old actor.
During her career from child actress to adult star her films represented a "coming of age" for both her and Hollywood films in general. As a teenager her performance in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) earned her a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. After first working in films as a child Wood became a successful Hollywood star as a young adult receiving three Academy Award nominations before Natalie Wood was 25 years old.