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Zelda Rubinstein dies at 76; starred in 'Poltergeist'

Zelda Rubinstein, the diminutive character actress with the childlike voice who was best known as the psychic called in to rid a suburban home of demonic forces in the 1982 movie "Poltergeist," has died. She was 76.

Rubinstein died Wednesday of natural causes at Barlow Respiratory Hospital in Los Angeles, her agent Eric Stevens said. Rubinstein was hospitalized at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center about two months ago after suffering a mild heart attack, Stevens said.

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A medical lab technician before launching her acting career in her 40s, the 4-foot-3 Rubinstein made her film debut as one of the little people in the 1981 Chevy Chase comedy "Under the Rainbow."

Among her other credits are the movies "Frances," "Sixteen Candles," "Teen Witch," "Anguish" and "Southland Tales" and the TV series "Picket Fences," on which she was a regular.

But Rubinstein made her biggest impact as Tangina in director Tobe Hooper's "Poltergeist," co-written by Steven Spielberg, who also served as a producer.

"Do y'all mind hanging back? You're jamming my frequencies," Rubinstein's Tangina says as she tours the house after the young daughter has been sucked into a blinding white light in her bedroom closet and disappears.

The role was written specifically for a little person.

"I thought it would be neat to show that someone's size had nothing to do with her psychic powers," Spielberg told the Los Angeles Times in 1982. "Good things can come in small packages, and that's certainly true of Zelda."

The youngest of three children - and the only little person in the family - she was born in Pittsburgh on May 28, 1933. Her schoolmates called her Pigeon.

She was an adult before she was at peace with her small size. "I just decided it was a very interesting variation," she said. Or put another way: "I just consider myself rather condensed."

Rubinstein won a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned a degree in bacteriology. She worked for many years as a lab technician in blood banks before giving up lab work for acting in 1978.

Rubinstein had no immediate surviving family members.

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