She was 4’ 3” tall, but friends and co-stars say her heart was as big as her activist spirit. On January 27th, actress Zelda Rubenstein, best remembered for her role as psychic Tangina Barrons in the ‘Poltergeist’ films, died of natural causes in Los Angeles; she was 76.
Rubenstein began her film career in 1981, but it was her appearance 1982’s ‘Poltergeist’ in a part specifically created for a little person that catapulted her to fame.
At the time, director Steven Spielberg said of the diminutive actress: “Good things can come in small packages, and that’s certainly true of Zelda.”
Rubenstein’s activism as a spokesperson for AIDS awareness had its roots in her own experiences as a person of small stature. Lambasting Hollywood’s depiction and treatment of ‘little people,’ both on and off screen, she called it “absolutely despicable,” and said that “you’re not an actor if you’re just a person that fits into a cute costume. You’re a prop.”
In 1985, Rubenstein immersed herself in AIDS activism. Approached by an AIDS awareness organization, L.A. CARES, she was recruited to market the role of a mother who pleads with her gay son to “play safely.”
Videos of the ads were shown in gay bars, with the son depicted as a bare-chested stud.
The campaign later spread to print media, in which she speaks the words “Don’t forget your rubbers” to her “son,” shown in raingear. Beneath her were the words “L.A. CARES…like a mother.”
Craig Thompson, executive director of AIDS Project Los Angeles, said that Rubenstein “was one of the very first Hollywood celebrities to speak out on HIV and AIDS.” After her ads appeared, the campaign’s hotline “skyrocketed.”
Rubenstein was a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, and earned a degree in bacteriology, is survived by a daughter, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.