The diminutive, squeaky-voiced actress Zelda Rubinstein became a star overnight as the medium Tangina in "Poltergeist" (1982) and its sequels. However, she struggled to find similarly dramatic work in the two decades that followed; more often than not, she was reduced to playing eccentrics or variants on her most famous character. However, she remained active and, from all accounts, game to tackle any project until 2009, when she was hospitalized for kidney failure. But her performance in "Poltergeist" - so convincing and honest in the face of so much supernatural goings-on - would ensure her lasting remembrance among movie fans.
The exact date of her birth was unknown - various sources listed May 28, 1933 or Jan. 1, 1936 - but Rubinstein was born in Pittsburgh, PA and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She worked in medical labs for decades before moving to Europe in the late 1970s. From there, she wound her way through Europe and Africa before returning to the United States in 1980. Upon her return, she experienced an epiphany of sorts and left the medical field to pursue acting. After acquiring an agent, she landed her first job as a voice-over artist on the animated "Flintstone Comedy Hour" (CBS, 1980). Her role - as Atrocia Frankenstone, the giggly daughter of a family of Stone Age ghouls - was a foreshadowing of the roles that would come her way in the future.
Rubinstein made her live-action screen debut in the grim 1981 comedy "Under the Rainbow," which concerned the many Hollywood rumors about the Munchkins during the making of "The Wizard of Oz" (1939). The following year, she auditioned for and landed the part that would bring her international attention - that of Tangina Barrons, the spiritual medium who discovers the malevolent force behind the hauntings in "Poltergeist." Rubinstein's performance - a combination of otherworldly and soothingly matron-like - lent considerable credence to the avalanche of special effects director Tobe Hooper and producer Steven Spielberg unleashed on audiences, and her most famous line - "This house is clean" - entered the pop culture canon upon the film's release.
For the next two decades, Rubinstein's "Poltergeist" appearance made her a familiar face in all manner of features and television. Her roles were frequently bit parts, and more often than not, cashed in on her notoriety from the Hooper/Spielberg film, like "Teen Witch" (1989) or "Little Witches" (1996). There were occasional forays into comedy, but Rubinstein rarely got to play for laughs - her tiny frame and helium-high voice was frequently the punch line itself. Her most substantive roles during this period were, not surprisingly, her reprisal as Tangina in the underwhelming "Poltergeist II: The Other Side" (1986) and "Poltergeist III" (1988), which saw her character meet her fate. In 1996, she guest-starred on the syndicated series "Poltergeist: The Legacy" (Showtime/Sci Fi Channel) as yet another medium, but with no relation to the role she played in the films.
Other than Tangina, Rubinstein's best work was in the surreal Spanish meta-thriller "Anguish" (1987), which cast her as a psychotic mother who controls her murderous son via psychic abilities. The entire plot unfolded as a film within a film, seen in a theater under siege by a real-life serial killer. And from 1992 to 1994, she played police dispatcher Ginny Weedon on "Picket Fences" (CBS, 1992-96), her character came to a darkly humorous end in 1995 when she fell into a freezer and suffocated.
Rubinstein worked well into the 2000s, mostly on television, where she provided voice-overs for numerous animated series, as well as the occasional guest shot. From 2000 to 2006, she was the narrator of the paranormal documentary series "Scariest Places on Earth" (ABC Family), the show's on-air host was another actress who struggled with typecasting after a memorable horror appearance - Linda Blair. The year 2006 was a particularly busy year for her, with small but memorable roles in Richard Kelly's critically lambasted "Southland Tales," the horror mockumentary "Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon," and the low-budget comedy "Unbeatable Harold." They turned out to be her last screen appearances to date; in late 2009, word was leaked on the Internet that after a lengthy hospital stay for kidney failure, Rubinstein's family had decided to take her off life support. The dire news was countered in early 2010 when reports were issued that she was recovering, but only weeks later, Rubinstein finally succumbed to her ailments on Jan. 27, 2010.
Cast (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
First TV credit, voiced a character on "Flintstone Family Adventures" (CBS)
Returned to school to study acting
Made feature film debut in "Under the Rainbow"
Breakthrough role as eccentric medium Tangina Barrons in Steven Spielberg's "Poltergeist"
Had a small but memorable role in the John Hughes' comedy "Sixteen Candles"
Reprised the role of Tangina Barrons in "Poltergeist II: The Other Side"
Formed her own production company, ZR Productions
Once again portrayed Tangine Barrons in "Poltergeist III"
Had a supporting role in the film, "Teen Witch"
Had a recurring role as police dispatcher Ginny Weedon on the CBS series, "Picket Fences"
Narrated the horror series, "Scariest Places on Earth" for ABC Family
Voiced a Psychiatrist in the Cartoon Network movie, "The Flintstones: On the Rocks"
Appeared in the film "Cages" as a manipulative and protective middle-aged British woman
Made a cameo appearance in the horror film, "Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon"
Had a small role in Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales"