He Was Legend: Sci-Fi Author Richard Matheson Dies at 87

Mark Deming
Movie Talk

One of the great men of fantasy films is gone. Richard Matheson, who was one of America's most respected and prolific authors in the field of science fiction and fantasy, died Sunday at the age of 87 after a lengthy illness.

In addition to publishing twenty-eight novels and well over a hundred short stories, Matheson enjoyed a successful career as a screenwriter, and many of his literary works were adapted for the screen, inspiring such diverse motion pictures as "I Am Legend," "Real Steel," "Somewhere In Time," "Stir Of Echoes," and "The Incredible Shrinking Man."

Matheson also wrote the short story "Duel" and adapted it into a screenplay that would become the breakthrough project for a young television director named Steven Spielberg. First aired in 1971, "Duel" was one of the few made-for-TV movies that would later earn a theatrical release, and helped launch the filmmaker into theatrical projects.

In a statement released Monday, Spielberg spoke warmly about Matheson and his work.

"Richard Matheson's ironic and iconic imagination created seminal science-fiction stories and gave me my first break when he wrote the short story and screenplay for 'Duel,'" Spielberg said. "His 'Twilight Zone' [episodes] were among my favorites and he recently worked with us on 'Real Steel.' For me, he is in the same category as [Ray] Bradbury and [Isaac] Asimov."

Matheson was born in Allendale, New Jersey in 1926, and spent most of his childhood in Brooklyn, graduating from Brooklyn Technical High School. Matheson went on to earn a degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri in 1949, and in 1950 he published his first story in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

In 1955, one of Matheson's short stories, "Young Couples Only," was adapted for the television anthology series "Studio 57," and when Universal purchased the screen rights to Matheson's novel "The Incredible Shrinking Man," he was hired to write the script. The literate, philosophical approach of 1957's "The Incredible Shrinking Man" won the film a cult following as an early sci-fi classic, and launched Matheson on a lengthy career writing for movies and television.

In the 1960s, Matheson penned sixteen episodes of the classic fantasy anthology series "The Twilight Zone," including "Steel" (which was later adapted into the 2011 Hugh Jackman vehicle "Real Steel") and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (which was remade for 1983's "Twilight Zone: The Movie"). Matheson also wrote for "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour," "Star Trek," and "The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.," and he did the screenplays for three of Roger Corman's popular Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, "House of Usher," "The Pit and the Pendulum," and "The Raven."

1964 saw the release of "The Last Man On Earth," the first of three full-length adaptations of Matheson's 1954 novel "I Am Legend." It would be remade in 1971 as "The Omega Man" starring Charlton Heston, and in 2007 as "I Am Legend" with Will Smith.

In the 1980s, Matheson primarily wrote for television, though he helped pen the ill-fated "Jaws 3-D," and his 1975 novel "Bid Time Return" became the basis for the popular romantic fantasy "Somewhere in Time," starring Christopher Reeve." Two more of Matheson's novels were brought to the screen in the 1990s: "What Dreams May Come," starring Robin Williams, and "A Stir of Echoes," featuring Kevin Bacon.

From the mid-1990s onward, Matheson focused on writing novels; he was elected into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010, and published his last book, "Generations," in 2012. He died at his home in Calabasas, California, surrounded by friends and family, according to his daughter Ali Marie Matheson..

See a clip from "Real Steel," inspired by Richard Matheson's "Twilight Zone" episode: