Zelda Rubinstein: Actress best known for playing the eccentric medium in 'Poltergeist'

Zelda Rubinstein will be best remembered for her role as the eccentric medium attempting to free a home of demonic influences in Tobe Hooper's horror film Poltergeist (1982). Rubenstein was 4ft 3in tall, and the original script, co-written by Steven Spielberg, who was also a producer of the film, was conceived with the role of psychic Tangina Barrons expressly written to be played by a little person.

"I thought it would be neat to show that someone's size has nothing to do with her psychic powers," said Spielberg. "Good things can come in little packages, and that's certainly true of Zelda." The film moves into a higher gear when Rubinstein appears, her child-like voice and eerie calm allowing for touches of welcome humour. Touring the house after a young girl has been sucked into her bedroom closet and disappeared, she asks, "Do y'all mind hanging back? You're jamming my frequencies."

Besides her performances in films and on television, Rubinstein was a noted activist for the rights of little people (the term she preferred). She also campaigned for Aids education and greater public awareness of the disease in 1984, when it was courageous to do so. She appeared as a mother figure in a series of commercials aimed at gay men, and said later that she did "pay a price, career-wise".

Rubenstein did not start acting until she was nearly 50. She was born in Pittsburgh in 1933, her lack of height due to a deficiency of the anterior pituitary gland, which produces growth hormone. She described herself as "the only one different in appearance" in her family. Educated at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of California, Berkeley, she became a laboratory technician. After working for several years in London, she decided to change careers.

"I had to do something creative," she said. "I felt I was sabotaging myself... 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."

Her screen debut was not auspicious, playing an actress appearing as a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz in the tasteless farce starring Chevy Chase, Under the Rainbow (1981). The following year, her bravura display as Tangina in Poltergeist, ordering hostile spirits to "go into the night" before declaring, "This house is clean!", received an overwhelmingly favourable response, The Washington Post hailing her performance as one of the best by an actress that year.

Rubinstein reprised her role as Tangina in two sequels, Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986), and Poltergeist III (1988), and she later made guest appearances as a seer in the television spin-off, Poltergeist: The Legacy (1996). She played a mental patient in Frances (1982), in which Jessica Lange starred as Frances Farmer, the tragic self-destructive actress, and she had the small role of an organist in John Hughes' Sixteen Candles (1984). Many of her other films were low-budget independent productions, including Anguish (1987), Teen Witch (1989) as another medium, National Lampoon's Last Resort (1994), and Little Witches (1996).

She provided voice-overs for television's The Flintstones and appeared on many television shows including Matt Houston (1983), Faerie Tale Theatre (1987), Mr Belvedere (1990) and Tales from the Crypt (1992). She had a recurring role as a sheriff's assistant in the series Picket Fences (1992-94), and for several years she narrated the series Scariest Places on Earth (2000-06). Her last film role was a cameo in the horror film Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2007).

In 1981, Rubenstein helped found the Michael Dunn Memorial Repertory Theater, in which the tallest performer was 4ft 6in; Dunn was the small actor who achieved recognition in Ship of Fools (1965). "Little people are societally handicapped," Rubinstein observed. "They have about two minutes to present themselves as equals – and if they don't take advantage of that chance, then people fall back on the common assumption that 'less' is less."

Tom Vallance

Zelda Rubinstein, actress: born Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 29 May 1933; died Los Angeles, California 27 January 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence