When Natalie Wood came to town


Brainstorm, one of many major movies shot in North Carolina, was Natalie Wood’s last. Scenes of the science fiction film were shot in Raleigh and around the Triangle, in places like Oakwood, Hayes Barton, Research Triangle Park, Chapel Hill, the Duke Chapel, and Duke Gardens in the fall of 1981.

One Raleighite who’s never forgotten it is Realtor Marianne Wachtel.  When Wachtel’s husband called from work early one morning to tell her that filming was taking place just up the road from their house on St. Mary’s street, Wachtel says she quickly dressed to see it for herself: “I put on a blue jean skirt, a plaid shirt, a decorative belt, and an off-white cardigan sweater,” she recalls.

When she arrived on the scene, she found a bustling bunch of movie people and a handful of neighbors watching the action. “I was looking at Christopher Walken on my tiptoes,” she says, when her friend, attorney Marvin Musselwhite, said: “Marianne, Natalie Wood is looking at you and talking about you over there.” Wachtel told him to stop teasing her.

“The next thing I knew, she was in my face, saying ‘Hello, I’m Natalie Wood’…and she’s wearing blue jean pants, a plaid shirt, a decorative belt, and a fringed suede jacket. And she said: ‘I love your sweater, I want to wear it in the movie.’ ”

Wachtel told Wood she could borrow the sweater, but Wood insisted on buying it. Wachtel demurred. She’d bought it in Scotland; it meant something to her. “I’ll pay you $100 for it,” Wood told her. Wachtel recalls: “This was 1981, and I’m a piano teacher, and $100 is a lot of money.” Wood assumed Wachtel’s pause to consider the surprising offer was a no. “So she said ‘I’ll pay you $200.’ And I said: ‘OK!’ and then I offered her my skirt and my belt and my blouse!” She laughs at the memory. She handed Wood the sweater – for which she’d paid $40  – and Wachtel’s friend David Faircloth took a picture (above).

“I was in a state of shock. There we were, Natalie Wood and me, arm in arm, I’m in my plaid shirt, she’s in her plaid shirt, I’m in my decorative belt, she’s in hers…and what’s funny is that the sweater didn’t even go with what she had on. The jacket was much better.”

The gathered friends and neighbors teased Wachtel afterward about her new “friend,” about the glamorous Hollywood parties she and her husband would surely soon be attending.

“Two weeks later, she was dead.”

An investigation into her accidental drowning was re-opened in 2011, when her cause of death was amended to “accidental drowning and other undetermined factors.” The film was completed with body double for Wood’s few remaining scenes – she’d already shot the major ones – and was released in 1983.