Fifty years ago, on October 18, 1961, Natalie Wood debuted in one of her most iconic roles: Maria, the 20th-century twist on Shakespeare’s tragically lovelorn Juliet, in the big-screen version of West Side Story. That Wood could nail the tricky mix of effervescence and anguish the role required was no surprise — after all, at just 23 years old, she was already a Hollywood veteran, an Oscar-nominated star whose astonishing talent had been honed since the age of 4.
From the very beginning of her career, LIFE Magazine photographers were there. Now, in celebration of West Side Story‘sgolden anniversary, LIFE.com presents the best never-before-published photos of its radiant star.
(see more — Natalie Wood: 25 Unpublished Photos)