Zelda Rubinstein, Iota - University of Pittsburgh

Larger than Life

Diminutive actress and Phi Sig sister Zelda Rubinstein left an enormous impact
on cinematic history, AIDS activism and the advocacy of little people

April 10, 2010

over 4 feet tall - yet wowed the likes of towering filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, and won loyalty and love from millions upon millions of fans the world over - was once just as awed by the ideals of Phi Sigma Sigma’s 10 founders as we are today.

ZELDA RUBINSTEIN hadn’t planned on becoming an actress, renowned for her work in movies like "Poltergeist," "Sixteen Candles" and "Teen Witch" before passing away at age 76 this past January.

When she accepted a scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh, where our Iota Chapter was based, she had her sights set on science – graduating in 1955 with a degree in bacteriology. After pursuing advanced studies at the University of California, Berkeley, she worked as a medical lab technician in blood banks – a respectable, important and even meaningful career.

Abrupt life change

Then, at age 47, something changed. Specifically, Zelda – who had said she wasn’t completely at ease with her diminutive size growing up – abruptly decided it was time to show the world who she really was, unleashing the powerful tour de force of personality and advocacy she would ultimately become, on screen and off.

“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,” she explained to The Hartford Courant. “I wanted a platform to be visible as a person who is different, as a representative of several varieties of differences. This is the most effective way for me to carry a message saying, 'Yes, you can.’ ”

Her courage to take that risk – to launch an acting career, yes, but more so, to live Phi Sigma Sigma’s core value of embracing diversity through inclusiveness – had an enormous impact not only on cinematic history, but on how the world would view “little people,” as she preferred those like herself to be called.

Early influences

Zelda was born to Polish immigrant parents in 1933 in Pittsburgh – the youngest of three siblings, and the only one affected by a pituitary deficiency that limited her adult height to 4 feet 3 inches. She called her childhood “rough,” but once told the Chicago Sun-Times it forced her to become “verbally facile…. I learned to meet everyone head-on.”

Not much is known about her college years or her participation in Phi Sigma Sigma at University of Pittsburgh (where our chapter is now inactive). She was initiated into our sisterhood on May 24, 1952, and graduated three years later.

But one could argue, and effectively so, that her early interest in science, her experience with Phi Sig’s philanthropic focus at UPitt, and her work in blood banks years later may have influenced her to become one of the first prominent and most vocal advocates for AIDS and HIV awareness and prevention in America – long before it was in vogue.

Zelda agreed to participate in a series of ground-breaking ads that were considered controversial in the ’80s, taking on a “mom” role, and speaking directly to gay men that they should “play safely.” It got attention, and it was effective.

But some film historians claim her acting career – which was just starting to take off at the same time – may have been harmed as a result of that support.

If this bothered Zelda, it doesn’t appear she ever said so publicly. In fact, Zelda had several “missions” in life – and wasn’t afraid to use her celebrity to stand up for what she believed to be right.

Activist and advocate

Case in point: She condemned what she considered the “despicable” treatment of little people in show business, notably after her film debut in the 1981 comedy, “Under the Rainbow.” The movie about the behind-the-scenes mayhem associated with casting little people as Munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz” received lukewarm reviews at the time, largely for conveying “so little feeling for them,” as The New York Times put it.

“You’re not an actor if you’re just a person that fits into a cute costume,” Zelda once told the Los Angeles Times. “You’re a prop.” And she felt that, for too long, Hollywood had overlooked little people’s intrinsic value as humans, as contributing members of society – relying on them instead for cheap laughs.

To combat this stereotype, she later formed a nonprofit theater group for little people in Los Angeles: the respected Michael Dunn Memorial Repertory Theater Company, named for the Oscar-nominated actor who earned international acclaim for his dramatic performance in the 1965 movie “Ship of Fools.”

Cinematic icon

Despite all these impressive and courageous accomplishments, what Zelda is best remembered for, of course, is her uncanny acting instinct – pitch perfect, dead on and completely convincing, particularly in the role of clairvoyant (which she often played).

Her performance in 1982’s blockbuster "Poltergeist" forever fixed Zelda in movie history as a true icon. Who can ever forget her as Tangina, the calm and collected medium called to rescue little Carol Anne from the evil presence in the blinding light that consumes her closet (and, ultimately, her family’s suburban home)?

“This house is clean,” Zelda famously quips, hair askew, after rescuing the girl (only to have the evil presence return in typically suspenseful fashion before the movie’s gripping, terrifying conclusion).

Many of her roles thereafter involved mediums or other-worldly characters. Zelda seemed suited to it, as Spielberg (the film’s co-writer and producer) noted early on: “I thought it would be neat to show that someone’s size had nothing to do with her psychic powers. Good things can come in small packages, and that’s certainly true of Zelda.” (The Los Angeles Times, 1982.)

Her comedic and dramatic work could also be seen in popular films like "Sixteen Candles," "Teen Witch," the "Poltergeist" sequels (which reviewers said she single-handedly carried to any measure of success), and in TV shows like the short-lived, but much-loved "Picket Fences," now something of a cult classic. Click here to review her many other credits.

Gone, but not forgotten

In recent years, Zelda worked less and made fewer public appearances due to ongoing health issues. Shortly after suffering a heart attack late last year, she passed away Jan. 27, 2010, as a result of related complications. She is survived by her daughter, Nann Lutz, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

But the legacy this poised, charismatic and compassionate Little Woman leaves behind for all her Phi Sigma Sigma sisters is mighty, indeed: to believe in yourself and your dreams, to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve success, to respect all people regardless of their outward differences, and to speak out to help others when no one else will.

Zelda Rubinstein was larger than life, and a true heroine. For this reason and so much more, we are proud to name her among Phi Sigma Sigma’s top 100 alumnae of all time.

Learn more about Zelda Rubinstein:

Do you know an outstanding alumna who should be considered for our "100 by 100" alumna profiles? Write us at phisighq@phisigmasigma.org