Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zacharenko in San Francisco at the height of the Great Depression, Natalie Wood (“Natasha” to close friends) was one of those rare stars who managed to combine old-school glamor, powerhouse talent and smoldering sex appeal in a single package. Her drowning death off the California coast when she was just 43 years old remains one of Hollywood’s enduring mysteries, and the source of more than two decades’ worth of rumors, investigations and speculation.
Here, LIFE.com presents a selection of photographs made by Bill Ray in 1963 — a time in the 25-year-old Wood’s career when she had made the leap from actress to genuine movie star and, more importantly, to formidable Hollywood player.
[Many of the photos in this gallery were not originally published in LIFE, but appear in Bill Ray’s book, My Life in Photography. Buy the book here.]
For Bill Ray, the most striking memory of the several weeks that he spent with Wood and her showbiz cohorts is, unsurprisingly, Wood herself — or, more specifically, her singular beauty.
“She was divine,” Ray told LIFE.com. “Really. She was divine to look at, and to photograph. She had that wonderful face, a great body, those amazing eyes — just a beautiful young woman, and a lot of fun to be around.”
Ray, who was not yet on staff at LIFE, also recalls that this was a big — and for his career, perhaps pivotal — gig. At the time, LIFE published 51 issues a year, with a special double issue in late December. For the Dec. 20, 1963, issue that focused wholly on the movies, Ray scored the choice, high-profile feature on Wood — the only piece in the entire issue devoted to a single actor or actress. “This was big stuff,” he says today of the plum assignment. “You know, back then photographers were never part of the meetings where these sort of assignment decisions were made, so to get the call for something of this magnitude — I was thrilled.”
Thrilled, but hardly cowed or overawed. After all, by the time the Natalie Wood shoot came his way, Ray was a seasoned professional, having covered the likes of JFK, Elvis Presley, John Wayne and other huge names and famous faces. What comes through in so many of his photographs, meanwhile, is the sense that here was a photographer who genuinely enjoyed his work (and why wouldn’t he?), while his subject was a strong young woman who had been in the public eye for so long that having her every move documented was hardly anything new.
In fact, as LIFE reminded its readers in that special year-end double issue back in 1963, Natalie Wood was about as self-aware — and self-confident — an actress as one was ever likely to meet:
One last detail that Bill Ray recalls about his time with Natalie Wood, however, casts something of a pall across his otherwise sunny memories. At some point during those several weeks, he joined Wood and a number of other people on a boat ride to Catalina Island (see slide 16 in the gallery) — the same island off the California coast near which Wood would drown in the fall of 1981. When Ray heard about her death, he was stunned: not only because he had always liked her and remembered the time he spent with her with such fondness, but because he had been struck during that boat ride in 1963 by how uncharacteristically out of sorts she seemed.
“It was obvious to me,” Ray told LIFE.com, “that Natalie did not like being out on the water at all. When I heard that she’d drowned, in basically the same place where we’d been all those years before, I wasn’t just sad — although that was part of it. I was also very, very surprised.”
Five decades later, the mystery of Natalie Wood’s death endures. Bill Ray’s pictures, meanwhile, shed a clear, poignant light on a time when the star’s already impressive career felt boundless, and her life charmed. The future, it seemed then, was hers for the taking.
[To see more of Bill Ray’s photography, and to purchase prints, visit BillRay.com.]
Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com