By Barbara Wilkins
December 13, 1976 12:00 PM

Once they were the beautiful twosome of the ingenuous ’50s—he the boyish heartthrob of the braces-and-bubblegum set; she the darkly beautiful ingenue with the questioning eyes. It was a match seemingly made in heaven—at least in the romantic fantasies of a studio press agent. In fact, says Natalie Wood, the match had been made years before. “I was 10 and he was 18 when I first saw him walking down a hall at 20th Century Fox,” she recalls. “I turned to my mother and said, ‘I’m going to marry him.’ ”

And she did. Twice.

Today, years after they first took the vows, 14 years after their divorce, and four years after they remarried, Robert John Wagner and Natalie Wood represent the triumph of hope over dismal experience. The pool beside their two-story Beverly Hills chalet sparkles in the California sun. In the driveway are his and hers Mercedes-Benzes. The blue-shuttered house overflows with gardenias and potted orchid trees. Its walls are hung with American Indian art. And there, more handsome than the artifacts, are Wagner and Wood themselves—slim, tanned and unconscionably youthful, ageless refugees from their own tinseled past.

How do they do it? He is 46, she 38. Between their marriages, each wed and had children with other people. Their combined bills for psychoanalysis once may have rivaled the GNP of an underdeveloped nation. And who knows how many acres of timberland have been cleared to produce the fan magazines that breathlessly chronicled their misadventures.

Yet Natalie and R.J. (as he is known to friends) have more than simply survived their days of the locust. The boyishly handsome Wagner has followed up It Takes a Thief, his 1968-69 hit on ABC, by playing Eddie Albert’s glib buddy in Switch, the caper comedy recently renewed by CBS. “Television,” Wagner rightly appraises, “has been very, very good to me.”

Now it may be good to both of them. Natalie and R.J. will be appearing together this week (Dec. 6) in a made-for-NBC movie of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Their co-star, lest anyone regard this as self-indulgent, Liz ‘n’ Dick-style vanity, is Sir Laurence Olivier, an imposing Big Daddy. Big Mama is Maureen Stapleton, who first acted with 8-year-old Natalie in 1946’s Miracle on 34th Street.

Natalie herself has been playing Little Mama (she’s 5’3¾”) since she semiretired after the 1969 movie Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. “Work doesn’t play the same role in my life it used to,” she explains. “If a woman decides to get married and have children, other parts of her life are just going to have to be put aside.” She has one daughter, Natasha, 6, by her second husband, Richard Gregson, a London theatrical agent, and a second, Courtney, 2, by Wagner.

Even more unexpected than Natalie’s decision to concentrate on children rather than career was her reconciliation with Wagner. The first time around, in 1957, their “dream marriage” was brutally overpublicized. Natalie recalls, “We drove a Corvette across the country. Radio stations would announce we had just passed through, and people would wait for us in every little town.”

Within three years the fragile but sensuous Natalie had made Marjorie Morningstar, West Side Story and Splendor in the Grass, planted her size-6 shoes in concrete at Grauman’s, and had awakened to the reality in which dream marriages founder. “We knew each other better than we knew ourselves,” she believes now. “I always knew he was okay. It was myself I didn’t know about.” She signed the divorce papers and plunged into analysis, five days a week for eight years, turning down movies like Bonnie and Clyde along the way (although she was involved with its star, Warren Beatty).

Separately remarried (“but we never stopped loving each other,” she says), Natalie and R.J. met only in passing until a Hollywood dinner party in 1970. Gregson was in England on business, and Natalie went by herself, six months pregnant. “R.J. came in alone,” she remembers. “We talked all evening. It was bittersweet. He walked me to the car. It was raining, and he was worried about me driving home to Bel Air by myself. He said, ‘Are you happy?’ What I didn’t realize was that he was at the party alone because he and his wife had just separated.”

“I remember driving around the corner,” adds Wagner. “I stopped the car and had tears in my eyes. The rain was coming down, and I thought, ‘Oh, Jesus!’ ”

His prayer, if that is what it was, was answered by the amicable breakup of Natalie’s marriage in the summer of 1971. Over the next few months they talked frequently on the phone, until Wagner asked her to come to his house in Palm Springs. “Friends told me to put on the brakes,” Natalie admits. “There was always the risk that we had become totally different people.” She went anyway, on Jan. 26, 1972. and they’ve been together ever since. “We were both in shock,” says Natalie. “We talked about what had happened to our marriages. He had become a man instead of a boy. But we had to have those years apart.”

Both R.J. and Natalie were Hollywood brats, she in movies and he longing to be. The only child of a Detroit metals manufacturer and his wife, R.J. moved with his family to Bel Air during World War II. Popular, but a diffident student, he boasts that he was “expelled from every good prep school in L.A.” After regaling a Warner Bros, casting director with his repertoire of impressions, he finally found work as an extra, appearing in more than 40 films. “I still see myself going by at night on TV,” he says. Later he became fanmag bait in films like Halls of Montezuma and Stars and Stripes Forever, but it took some fatherly interest on the part of Spencer Tracy, his co-star in The Mountain, to persuade him that acting was a serious craft.

Natalie, on the other hand, was a $1,000-a-week child star who first toddled before the cameras at the age of 4. Born Nikolaevna Zacharenko, daughter of a Russian-born carpenter and his ballerina wife, she was living in Santa Rosa, Calif. when a movie company began filming nearby. “My mother figured out who the director was and said, ‘Why don’t you sing your little song for him, dear?’ ” That was the beginning. Soon after, her name changed, little Natalie began stealing scenes—one of them from Orson Welles, who bellowed, “She’s terrifying!”

At 17, Natalie made the jump from kiddie star to post-pubescent love interest as James Dean’s girlfriend in Rebel without a Cause. Simultaneously she began co-starring in gossip columns with Dean, Elvis Presley and Nicky Hilton, Liz’s ex. Through it all she had her heart set on R.J.

Nowadays Wood and Wagner are bona fide members of the Beverly Hills aristocracy. Natalie has a nanny and live-in cook, though she sometimes whips up Russian dishes herself on the Wagners’ 60-foot power cruiser Splendor. Natasha attends private schools. (Natalie, who says she and R.J. would like to have at least one more child, has no intention of pushing her offspring into movies, even though her own memories of early stardom are surprisingly benign.) In his off-hours R.J. mucks about his vegetable garden in jeans and huaraches. Regular guests include Fred Astaire, Wagner’s It Takes a Thief co-star, director Elia Kazan and feline archcritic Rex Reed.

Though she enjoys working on special projects like Cat with R.J., Natalie has no plans to return to acting full-time. Instead, she and several friends have started a profitable sideline—buying, renovating and selling homes in the Hollywood area. “I like to decorate,” Natalie sums herself up. “I can type. I can write. I can teach. I think I’m a fair wife and an exceptional mother. And that’s what I want right now.” (In addition to the younger children, Wagner’s daughter Kate, 12, visits frequently. She lives in Beverly Hills with his second wife, actress Marian Donnen.)

Surprisingly, neither R.J. nor Natalie regrets the star system that made their private lives so public. If not for the movies, Wagner points out, “I could still be standing at the country club bar, with my foot on the rail, hustling gin games.” Their longtime best friend, playwright Mart Crowley, puts it differently. “Once people expected Nat and R.J.’s place to be the last word in the American dream, a doll’s house with dolls living in it,” he says. “Now they confront whatever problems exist and deal with them. They’ve learned to believe in themselves.”