Christopher Walken: The Third Man

Oddball actor is at the centre of one of Hollywood's enduring mysteries: how did Natalie Wood die?

For a short while early yesterday morning, it seemed that Christopher Walken had spoken about the Natalie Wood case. The Associated Press reported that Walken, the Other Man on the boat the night Wood argued with her husband Robert Wagner and subsequently drowned, said: "We had a lot to drink that night. There was sambuca. There was shouting. And then there was tragedy. And that's all I can remember."

The only trouble was it was not Walken talking on a radio show, but Marc Sterne, who specialises in impersonating Walken's famously staccato way of speaking. A possible clue that this was not the actor himself – missed by AP in its eagerness to report the words – was that "Walken" said that he had gone to bed "after reading one of the Hardy Boys novels", juvenile books which are the US equivalent of Enid Blyton's Famous Five. AP had a correction out within the hour.

And so one more little layer is added to the saga that, ever since November 1981, has tantalised the world's armchair detectives. It was given fresh impetus on Friday when Lieutenant John Corina of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's office told a news conference that detectives had reopened the investigation based on new information from several sources "which we felt was substantial enough to make us take another look at this case". He was keen to emphasise the original finding that Wood's death was an accidental drowning had not changed, and that neither Wagner nor Walken is a suspect.

In 1997, the real Walken told Playboy: "What happened that night only she knows, because she was alone. She had gone to bed before us, and her room was at the back. A dinghy was bouncing against the side of the boat, and I think she went out to move it. There was a ski ramp that was partially in the water. It was slippery – I had walked on it myself. She had told me she couldn't swim... She was probably half asleep, and she was wearing a coat. Anybody there saw the logistics – of the boat, the night, where we were, that it was raining – and would know exactly what happened. You hear about things happening to people – they slip in the bathtub, fall down the stairs, step off the curb in London because they think that the cars come the other way – and they die."

Officials would not say why they were taking another look at the case, although the captain of the boat blamed Wagner for Wood's death. The actress's sister, Lana Wood, told CNN's Piers Morgan that she doesn't believe her sister fell off the boat. "I don't know if she was pushed. I don't know whether there was an altercation and it happened accidentally, but she shouldn't have died," she said. "I would prefer to always believe that RJ [Wagner] would never do anything to hurt Natalie and that he loved her dearly, which he did, and I don't believe that whatever went on was deliberate."

Wood and Wagner were married twice, first in 1957 before divorcing six years later. They remarried in 1972. Her death in 1981 has long sparked tabloid speculation that foul play was involved. the boat's captain Mr Dennis Davern said on NBC's Today show on Friday that he lied to investigators about events on the yacht Splendour when he was interviewed after Wood's death. He accused Wagner of having an argument with Wood before she went missing and delaying the search for her after she disappeared. This contrasts with what he told the 1981 inquiry, when no mention was made of a row between the couple.

Wood, Wagner, Walken and Mr Davern spent time in 1981 both on Catalina Island and drinking on the yacht. Wagner has dismissed any suggestion that his wife's death was anything more than an accident. In a 2008 autobiography, he recounted drinking with Wood and Walken at a restaurant and on the boat. Wood went to the master cabin during an argument between the two men, Wagner said. The last time Wagner saw his wife, she was fixing her hair in the bathroom and she shut the door. Walken, who has rarely spoken of that night, denied in a 1982 interview that the two men quarrelled.

Despite various theories about what led Wood to the water, which she feared, he said, it was impossible to know what happened. "Nobody knows," he wrote. "There are only two possibilities: either she was trying to get away from the argument, or she was trying to tie the dinghy. But the bottom line is that nobody knows exactly what happened."

Coroner's officials said at the time that she was "possibly attempting to board the dinghy and had fallen into the water, striking her face". Wood was found wearing a flannel nightgown, socks and a red down jacket. Her body had superficial bruises, according to the report, but those were considered consistent with drowning.

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