Actress Zelda Rubinstein, the ball of sass with the childlike voice who was best known as the psychic from Poltergeist, has died. Rubinstein had been hospitalized for the last two months after suffering a heart attack, and was recently taken off life support. She was 76.
Rubinstein, whose self-described “condensed” size was the result of a pituitary gland deficiency, was a late bloomer in Hollywood, landing her first feature role in her late forties in the little-loved Chevy Chase comedy, Under The Rainbow. That film’s subplot, concerning a group of little people who have gathered to audition for the Munchkin roles in The Wizard Of Oz, served as Rubinstein’s first introduction to the way the film industry most often views little people: as props for comic relief. Shortly after the movie’s completion, she founded the Michael Dunn Memorial Repertory Theater (named for the Oscar-nominated co-star of 1965’s Ship Of Fools) with a message for her fellow diminutive thespians: “Become an actor and your world will get much bigger.” She later took on an even more daunting cause, starring in a famous AIDS awareness campaign in the early ’80s—something she later admitted caused her to “pay a price, career-wise.”
To most people, of course, Rubinstein will always be “Tangina,” the spunky/spooky medium in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, a role that Steven Spielberg had specifically written for a little person to “show that someone’s size had nothing to do with her psychic powers.” Certainly her size had nothing to do with the power of Rubinstein’s performance, as Tangina is easily the most memorable character in the film—so much so that by its second sequel, Poltergeist III, she had officially become the hero. Rubinstein turned in many other, always-memorable performances over the years—in Sixteen Candles, Picket Fences, Tales From The Crypt, Southland Tales, and Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon to name but a few—but the specter of Poltergeist and Tangina hung over much of her career, with Rubinstein frequently playing psychics and other characters in touch with “the other side.” To her credit, she always seemed to be having the time of her life doing it. Fans can perhaps find some comfort in words from Tangina’s famous monologue: “There is no death. There is only a transition to a different sphere of consciousness.”
The L.A. Times has an in-depth look at Rubinstein here.