Imagine living around Santa Monica in the 1950s; perfect weather, fab beaches, great parties inhabited by wall to wall celebrities. Hazy days spent on the back lots of the great movie studios and nights spent dining at the Brown Derby or taking in a movie at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. However, imagine being a beautiful, but lonely child? You haven’t made a film yet, but your sister is already a teenage star having just made Rebel without a Cause. Your parents are hardworking folk from the “old” country who are determined to achieve success in the new country and you yourself are often away at school. Home is something you think of with ambivalence, and not a little foreboding.
This must have been a little of what it was like for the shy kid-sister of Natalie Wood. When Lana was ten-years-old and sharing the role of Debbie Edwards in the classic Ford western, The Searchers with her sister, Natalie had already appeared in thirteen films and would soon be dating eligible young actors like Robert Wagner. Here was a double-edged life; one immersed in glamour, but often shadowed by loneliness, which often haunts and then moulds the child as she becomes a woman.
That said Lana would soon transform into a voluptuous and talented young adult who held her own on both TV and film playing juvenile roles in series like The Long Hot Summer and Peyton Place. By now Lana had also made several movies with people as diverse as Rosalind Russell and Jack Hawkins to The Beach Boys and from Keir Dullea to Ricardo Montalban. Indeed, Lana’s career was well established when the call came to film her signature role as Plenty O’Toole in the classic Bond film, Diamonds are Forever.
Although Lana went on to make several more appearances in shows like QBVII and the series Capitol, she has not acted for more than twenty years having retired at the tender age of 36. Despite this Lana’s many pin up photos from her Playboy shoot, from James Bond and other films are still hugely popular and she is fast becoming a favourite at the various shows she attends like SpyFest on the Queen Mary.
With her family commitments, (including dealing with the recent cancer scare for her beautiful twenty-five year old daughter Evan) as well as various appearances and working as a producer on a movie about her sister, Lana is as busy now as she has ever been. However, not content with all this, Lana has also recently launched her website at: http://www.lanawood.net
This is a site where fans and collectors can purchase personally autographed photos, leave messages for Lana and read all about this beautiful lady’s life. I recently caught up with the lovely Miss Wood for a quick chat.
David: What is one of your favourite moments from growing up in an émigré household living around tinsel town in the 1950s?
Lana: It was actually, not a terribly happy household, and what I remember most was how I used to come home from grammar school to an empty house. I do remember how thrilled Natalie was when Robert Wagner came to pick her up for a date.
David: You are nearly eight years younger than your late sister Natalie, who was already making films before you were born. What is one or two of your fondest memories from your childhood?
Lana: I was always on a set, and at the age of eight was given a role in The Searchers. Unlike Natalie, I was shy and remember being very nervous on the set doing my scenes. Jeffrey Hunter and John Wayne made them easier as they were incredibly kind to me; particularly Jeff Hunter.
David: In 1956 you made your film debut in the classic western, The Searchers. As fate would have it, this would be the only film you would make with Natalie. Did you ever have a chance to work with her again only to have fate intervene?
Lana: I placed my self in a party scene in the film "Penelope", so Nat would see me during the scene. I was in the midst of about 2 dozen people, and the only one in casual clothing, and making a spectacle of myself by speaking too loudly (in the background) and generally wreaking havoc. It was with director Arthur Hiller’s approval, and since Natalie was used to my joking around a lot, I knew she would be surprised and it would cause a giggle or two!
David: Can you tell us about the very first time you signed an autograph and what you working on at the time? What was this moment like for you and how old were you?
Lana: I didn't sign autographs until I became Sandy Webber on Peyton Place. It was at a baseball game, and the crowd around me began to chant "Sandy, Sandy". I was astounded. Several close to me asked me to sign programs. It was fun, but unbelievable for me.
David: Over the years did you ever sign any photos with Natalie or with other actors like Sean Connery?
Lana: When Natalie and I would take the kids to Universal City petting zoo, people would stop us and ask for our autographs.
David: You made two TV series in your early twenties where you got to work with some terrific actors like Dorothy Malone, Mia Farrow, Edmund O'Brien and Ruth Roman. What is one of your funniest memories from these early days and who did you most like working with?
Lana: On "Peyton Place" we were all very young and boisterous. I had so many funny times on that set. I was the joker, and sometimes annoyed a couple of the older actors who were taking things very seriously.
David: Of course, for fans around the world, you will always be remembered as that very sexy Bond beauty, Plenty O’Toole. What is the story behind you landing this role?
Lana: The great screenwriter, Tom Mankiewicz called and told me that he had suggested me for the role, and would I come to the Studio to meet with Cubby Broccoli. I did, at a brief meeting, and was leaving for New York the next day. I got to my Hotel and found a message stating I had the role. I was extremely happy.
David: Do you think the movie is much better now that the studio has restored your missing scenes to the DVD version?
Lana: I am delighted that the missing scenes are available to the public, as my role as Plenty makes more sense with them. However, I can see how the scene in the Dome of the Sea restaurant didn't work, and was pretty pointless. I was "dating" Sean Connery during the filming and we had a wonderful time going to dinner and seeing lots of shows in Vegas. It was a very professional set, and we all worked very hard.
David: Did Hugh Hefner approach you personally to do your Playboy shoot?
Lana: No, I was contacted by the magazine rather than by Hugh. He was, however, very kind and helpful later on when I decided I didn't want the pictures to appear in his Magazine. He finally came up with the idea of publishing my poems as well, so it wasn't simply a pictorial.
David: What has it been like for you with autograph fans? And how many photos do you think you would sign in the course of a year?
Lana: I find most of the fans are very kind and really thrilled to meet me. They make me feel good, and I am very appreciative of this. I probably sign a couple of hundred photos each year.
David: If anyone in history could sign for you, who would it be and what would you have them say in their dedication?
Lana: Amelia Earhart...”To Lana, don't fly more than you really have to.”
David: In 1982 you made your last TV series, Capitol, but you have recently been involved with a film version of Natalie's life, which I believe was shot downunda. What can you tell us about your involvement, and is it based on your own book from 1985?
Lana: No, it is based on the Suzanne Finstad bio, but I was fortunate enough to have been asked to produce and try to keep things real!
David: I have read where your family were not pleased about the release of your biography. What is your version of events?
Lana: I don't know if RJ was pleased or displeased, he did not wish to read it at that time, and because of circumstances in his life, it was really not good for him to continue with our relationship. I understand to a degree, and am really sorry that he is not in my life. I miss him.
David: Over the years stories get written, books get published and what was Hollywood history becomes something different, something very different from the life you might actually have led. During our chats you have spoken about this to me and I wanted to get your thoughts about how the public can be misled and fooled by what they read?
Lana: Oh yes, so many stories have been told about my family over the years and even in the early days there was a blurring of the lines. People see me or other members of my family and their views have been moulded by what strangers may have written about us. Often these writers have never even spoken to me and yet put words in my mouth or write things that never even happened. I know this happens to people much more famous than me, but the hurt is always the same for anyone put in this position by people who would rather sell a book than record the truth.
As time has passed these stories have become even more fabulous and unreal and it is like I am reading about someone I do not know and people that I have never met. I have sometimes wanted to go off and forget I was ever a part of the Hollywood “life.” I spend my hours helping my daughter Evan fight for her life. She is only 25 and has two beautiful children, Nicholas and Daphne and as she fights Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, I find myself not only caring for her and my grandchildren, but fighting ghosts from the past. Not my own ghosts, but the inventions of writers; some off their own bat or often working off the agendas of others who have some sort of axe to grind. Over the last few months I have found myself struggling to cope with these attacks on my life and the lives of loved ones who are no longer here to speak for themselves and defend their reputations or tell people what our lives were really like.
And all I want to do is help my daughter as much as I can and lead a peaceful life with my animals and my good friends, talk to my many fans on the internet and at the occasional autograph show. It does not seem like a lot to ask after having been out of the spotlight for so many years.
David: Currently you are helping your beautiful twenty-five-old daughter, Evan in her battle against Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Knowing that you have two grandchildren as well as your daughter to worry and care about, what has been the toughest part of the process of fighting this cancer?
Lana: With the Hodgkin’s Lymphoma the toughest part is not all the care giving, (though that is really tiring) it is getting my daughter to stop feeling like a victim, and for her to take a more positive outlook on life. I think it is also difficult when an adult child knows they need someone when they would much prefer to be independent.
David: A this stage, what is the long term prognosis for Evan’s wellbeing? Do you find that your own strength of character offers Evan an important source of support during the healing process?
Lana: The prognosis is excellent, she has been Cancer free for two years now, and is expecting a third child! She usually feels that I am annoying more than helpful, but secretly she probably appreciates me.
David: With the great expense involved for medical care in the USA, has autograph signing now plays a more important role for you to help cover your expenses? And will we see you attending many conventions during 2007?
Lana: I usually only attend a few shows a year, but I would be willing to travel to do others around the world! So far, the only one I have booked is New Jersey's, “Chiller” which should be a lot of fun.
David: I have provided your website details in the introduction so that fans can check in and see how Evan is doing and where they can offer support by purchasing your sexy signed photographs from your many movies, your playboy shoot and, of course, as the delicious Plenty O’Toole. However, are there any last thoughts or messages you would like to share with your fans across the globe?
Lana: Just that I am grateful for their continued support and interest in Plenty O'Toole! It's a great business, but a fickle one, and if not for the fans...well, it would be dreadful indeed.
Article (c) David Priol 2004
First Published in The Pen & Quill September 2006
All photos copyrighted to their various owners and used here only to demonstrate Lana Wood's autograph and career.