May 8, 1933 – Zelda Rubenstein:
I’m from Pennsylvania and we speak sort of correctly there. People identify me that way and they also easily identify me on the street because of my short stature. I get picked out in many ways and no way is a burden.
She was a diminutive, 4-foot 3-inch character actor with the childlike voice, Zelda Rubinstein will forever be known for playing the indomitable ghost-purging psychic in Poltergeist (1982) and its unnecessary sequels Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), and Poltergeist III (1988).
Yet, the Poltergeist films brought brief bravura turns by Rubinstein as Tangina, the clairvoyant summoned to scour a suburban home of spirits. “This house is clean!” Tangina memorably declared after finishing her work. The Washington Post film critic called Rubenstein’s performance one of the best of 1982.
She was a medical lab technician who became an actor in her late 40s. Rubinstein made her film debut in the hard to watch Under The Rainbow (1981) starring Chevy Chase, Carrie Fisher, Eve Arden, and little person Billy Barty. The plot is based on the 1938 gathering of little people in a Hollywood hotel to audition for roles as Munchkins in The Wizard Of Oz. Of her screen debut, Rubinstein wrote:
It’s absolutely despicable. You’re not an actor if you’re just a person that fits into a cute costume. You’re a prop.
But, it brought her a SAG card.
Her other films include Frances (1982), Sixteen Candles (1984), and Teen Witch (1989). On television she had a recurring role as the sheriff’s dispatcher Ginny Weedon in the terrific CBS series Picket Fences (1992-94). She worked in guest roles on television series such as Shelly Duvall‘s Faerie Tale Theatre (1987), Tales From The Crypt (1987), and another Poltergeist project: Poltergeist: The Legacy (1996).
Rubinstein was a very public advocate of HIV/AIDS education and of Little People Rights. Little People was the term she preferred, and the one I use because most little people want to be referred to that way.
In 1981, she was one of the founders of Michael Dunn Memorial Repertory Theater in Los Angeles, which gives challenging acting opportunities to little people. Michael Dunn was an actor who knocked down barriers for little people in showbiz. He played Dr. Loveless, a mad scientist, on the television series The Wild Wild West (1964-69) starring hunky Robert Conrad who was not little in any way. In 1963, Dunn received the New York Critics’ Circle Award and was nominated for a Tony Award, for his performance in Edward Albee‘s stage adaptation of The Ballad Of The Sad Café, by Carson McCullers. Dunn received an Academy Award nomination for his role in Ship Of Fools (1965) directed by Stanley Kramer. Dunn died in 1973, at 38-years-old, under mysterious circumstances.
Rubinstein was born in Pittsburgh. She said:
…the only one different in appearance in my family, I had a rough childhood, but I became very verbally facile. I learned to meet everyone head-on.
She studied Medical Technology at the University of Pittsburgh and UC Berkeley. At 47-years-old, Rubinstein abruptly changed careers:
I had no idea what I would do next, but I knew it would involve advocacy for those people who were in danger of being disenfranchised. I wanted a platform to be visible as a person who is different, as a representative of several varieties of differences. This is the most effective way for me to carry a message saying, ‘Yes you can’. I took a look at these shoulders in the mirror and they’re pretty big. They can carry a lot of Sturm und Drang on them.
I had to do something creative. It was an internal feeling that I was sabotaging myself.
As Tangina in director Tobe Hooper‘s Poltergeist, co-written by Steven Spielberg, who also served as a producer, Rubinstein says: “Do y’all mind hanging back? You’re jamming my frequencies!” as she tours the house after the young daughter has been sucked into a blinding white light in her bedroom closet and disappeared. The role was written specifically for a little person. Spielberg:
I thought it would be neat to show that someone’s size had nothing to do with her psychic powers. Good things can come in small packages, and that’s certainly true of Zelda.
Film critics agreed. The Los Angeles Times critic called Rubinstein’s Tangina: “the most original and reassuring character in the film”. The New Yorker‘s Pauline Kael, no pushover, raved:
…the character gives the movie new life, and she makes a large chunk of it work. She emanates the eerie calm of someone who is used to dealing with tricky, deceiving ghosts.
Rubinstein’s message to little people who want to be in showbiz:
Become an actor and your world will get much bigger.
She was an adult before she was at peace with her small size:
I just decided it was a very interesting variation.
Rubinstein said she was looking for a way to get involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS when she was approached to play the mother in the campaign L.A. CARES (Los Angeles Cooperative AIDS Risk-Reduction Education Service), which was launched in early 1985 at what is now known as the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center.
She played a mother pleading with an unseen son to “play safely” in videos made to be shown in gay bars, the sons appeared as bare-chested young men. The campaign featured Rubinstein’s “mother” character in a series of ads in newspapers, and on billboards and buses.
In one ad with the words “Don’t forget your rubbers” at the top, Rubinstein is seen wearing an apron and talking to her “son”, who is clad only in shorts and holding an umbrella. At the bottom, it says, “L.A. CARES . . . like a mother”.
She was one of the very first Hollywood celebrities to speak out on HIV/AIDS issues, risking her career, especially so shortly after her rise to fame. Later she admitted that her bravery did come with a price to her career. Rubenstein:
I lost a friend to AIDS, one of the first public figures that died of AIDS. I knew it was not the kind of disease that would stay in anybody’s backyard. It would climb the fences, get over the fences into all of our homes. It was not limited to one group of people.
Rubinstein’s final credits rolled in L.A, in 2010. She was 76-years-old, taken by heart disease. She said that she had several missions in life and wasn’t afraid to use her celebrity to stand up for what she believed to be right. She was larger than life. I only wish that she had lived long enough to have starred in Poltergeist IV: Mall Cop.