by Nicole Wolverton
“Don’t go into the light, Carol Anne.” Connoisseurs of eighties horror movies can’t think of that line without immediately picturing Zelda Rubinstein. Rubenstein was 49 when “Poltergeist” was released in theaters. It was her first major acting role.
Maybe that seems late to land one’s first big job in Hollywood, but Rubinstein didn’t decide to study acting until she was 45. Prior to that, she worked as a medical laboratory technician, primarily in blood banks—she had a degree in bacteriology. Call it a mid-life crisis or just the yearning for a change, but life as a lab tech didn’t satisfy. “I had to do something creative,” she once told People magazine. “It was an internal feeling that I was sabotaging myself.” It was this desire that led to Rubinstein’s first acting class at University of California, Berkeley.
Rubinstein reprised her role as Tangina in “Poltergeist” several times. Even though the sequels didn’t garner either the reviews or the popularity that the first film did, critics praised her portrayal. The New York Times’s Sheila Benson noted that Rubinstein’s Tangina was “the most original and reassuring character in the film,” while The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael said 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 played other minor and major roles in films, such as “Sixteen Candles” (1984), “Teen Witch” (1989), “Cages” (2005), and “Southland Tales” (2006), and she was a regular on the television series “Picket Fences.” She is also well-known for her voiceover work in the ABC Family reality show, “Scariest Places on Earth.”
Poltergeist may have been her first big role, but it wasn’t her first role. It was her brief part in “Under the Rainbow” (1981) that launched her new career as well as her chance to be an activist for little people. Standing at only 4’3”, Rubinstein played one of the munchkins in the film. She noted of the film, “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.” She was instrumental in forming the Michael Dunn Memorial Repertory Theater Company in Los Angeles (named for a little person who received a supporting actor nomination in 1965), specifically to encourage little people to accept roles that did not diminish them as people. She was also vocal in the fight against AIDS—one of the first celebrities to do so in the eighties.
Rubinstein died in January 2010, after having a heart attack several months earlier.
Homepage photo © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.