As a child (from the ages of 9-13), she performed as a regular for a children's series called "Storyland", which aired on the AM radio station WWJ in Detroit, Michigan.
She then attended Cooley High School and Wayne State University, where she won the Eva Woodridge Victor Scholarship and graduated with a bachelor in 1963. Earned her Master's degree in Theatre from the University of Michigan. She then went to Indiana University to work as the lead actress in their inaugural theatre touring company season. She also began to work on her Ph.D. and taught beginning acting. While at Indiana University, she was granted a Fulbright Scholarship to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). She then moved to New York to pursue her acting career.
Among Tarbuck's many televisions credits were roles on ABC soap opera General Hospital (as Jane Jacks), NBC's Santa Barbara (as Sister Allegra), CBS's Falcon Crest (as Dr. Randall), ABC's Dynasty (as Dr. Holt), CBS' Dallas (as Agnes) and FX' American Horror Story (as Mother Superior Claudia).
Trained on a Fulbright Grant to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, her New York theater work included "Landscape & Silence" by Harold Pinter, "Water Engine" by David Mamet, Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and "Broadway Bound", Joseph Chaikin's production of "America Hurrah!", and "Enter The Night" by Marie Irene Fornes.
Tarbuck's favorite screen screen roles included the woman with 12 dogs on ER (1994), the aged mother on Cold Case (2003) who comes to terms with her murdered son's homosexuality, Dwayne Johnson's mother in Walking Tall (2004), and Kevin McKidd's mother on Journeyman (2007).
"Teaching and acting and directing all feed one another in me," Tarbuck explained on her official website. "I am as stimulated and questioned by the young people in my life as I am by new material or a famous director’s notes. On stage, before the camera, and in the classroom are the questions, demands, disappointments, delights that feed my soul. Mine is a life of continual change and upheaval. It is freedom and renewal and an underlying belief in the strength and dignity of human expression."