May 28, 2014 – The best thing to come out of my year on David E. Kelley’s fantastic Picket Fences wasn’t the career cachet or even the Emmy statuette, it was my deep and lasting friendship with the incomparable Zelda Rubinstein. Zelda was a collector of people, and if she liked you, you were in for life. I count myself quite fortunate to say the first time I met her, she took a shine to me. One of the most compassionate people I’ve ever known, and one of the most wickedly funny, she would call from time to time and leave the most delightful ramblings on my answering machine. We’d see each other every two or three months, usually for dinner at one of her many favorite haunts were she was always welcomed like royalty. Suffice to say that what Zelda lacked in physical stature, she more than made up for with humor and heart.
In the ensuing years of my television career, I was always on the lookout for the right role for her on whatever show I was working on. I wanted her to guest star on Moon Over Miami, but we were cancelled before we found the right story and character. She would have been brilliant on Law & Order, but for the brief thirteen episodes I was on staff, the opportunity never arose. Same for so many series that followed: Party of Five, Time of Your Life, Pasadena, etc. I came close on a brilliant but tragically short-lived show called First Years, but it was shut down after only three episodes had aired.
At long last, just after the WGA strike in 2007, I got a call from a friend who was running the CBS Friday night hit Ghost Whisperer, asking if I’d come help out. As a random aside, this would be my third prime time show with Jennifer Love Hewitt. It ended up being so much fun, I stayed on for the end of the third season, and remained through the next two until the series was unceremoniously cancelled. It was a great creative departure for me, but fit right in with my love of horror movies and ghost stories. As one of our fifth season story arcs led inevitably to a big haunted house extravaganza, I pitched an idea for the character of the evil ghost of a spirit medium who’d been a presence there since the 1940s, a role that would be perfect—in fact, beyond perfect—for Zelda, especially when you consider that she was the inspiration for the part and it was created specifically for her. Our showrunner and casting director were thrilled with the idea, and so I ran it by Zelda one day on the phone. Madame Greta Hanson (a play on Hansel & Gretel because she lured the ghosts of children to the spooky old house she haunted) was a former fraudulent spirit medium who had scammed the families of executed prisoners into believing she could contact the spirits of their loved ones. Instead, she was unwittingly collecting a whole houseful of truly terrifying ghosts, only to become one herself when she fell down the stairs of the sinister old house, which, incidentally, had been the famous Chicken Ranch in the movie version of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and was within spitting distance of Boo Radley’s house on the Universal backlot, but I digress. Given Zelda’s mobility issues, I even suggested we’d put the character in one of those creepy old wooden wheelchairs. She loved the idea, and didn’t even balk when I told her that her character would have to say “Don’t go into the light” in homage to her career-making turn as the psychic in Poltergeist. “Oh, I’ll say it, honey,” she said with the delightful and ever present tone of mischief in her voice.
The episode was entitled Old Sins Cast Long Shadows (if you’re hardcore, go here), and as I was writing the script toward the end of 2009, Zelda had a mild heart attack and was admitted to the hospital. I visited her there, and she assured me the doctors were confident she’d be out in no time and ready to go back to work. But as the start date of production grew near, Zelda took a turn for the worse, at first losing her inimitable voice due to a tracheotomy, and finally slipping into a coma. I was bereft over the gravity of her condition, but learned the practical truth to the age old adage that the show must go on—only in this case, it would have to be with someone else as Madame Greta Hanson. The script was specifically written for a little person, but in the short amount of time we had, we couldn’t find anyone who could match Zelda’s diminuitive but powerful presence. Ultimately, we cast a wonderful actress, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, and she truly rose to the occasion and created a fantastic character, but in my writer’s eye (and heart), I could only see Zelda in the role.
Zelda went into the light on January 27, 2010, not long after the episode wrapped principal photography, and when it aired in March of that year, I watched through a shimmer of tears. The part was written specifically for her, and ended up being my own private tribute to my truly astonishing and beloved friend. I urge you to watch the promo…
…or hell, watch the episode, and just picture Zelda in the role. I’m sure you’ll agree that she was beyond perfect for the part.
Today would have been her 81st birthday. So happy birthday, honey. I miss you each and every day. Stay tuned…