This profile first appeared in Plotpoints Podcast #175, April 10, 2020
Although there had been quite a few post-apocalyptic tales before "I Am Legend," Richard Matheson’s take is probably the most copied and most produced. It has led to many awards and much acclaim from everywhere in the world.
And it all started humbly enough in Allendale, New Jersey.
Richard Burton Matheson was the son of Norwegian immigrants. He published his first story at the age of 8 in the newspaper The Brooklyn Eagle in New York where he had moved with his then-divorced mother.
In 1949 he migrated to California after college and a stint in the Army. There he discovered even more outlets for his genius.
“Born Of Man and Woman” a horrifying tale about a gigantic child chained in a basement was published in the legendary The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1950. This garnered him a following and the attention led to other stories being published in Galaxy Science Fiction.
Matheson was quickly gaining a rep as a horror/scifi writer to be noticed. He was invited to become a member of the Southern California Sorcerers which included Ray Bradbury. I mean what wasn’t Ray Bradbury involved in back then?
Matheson’s style was hard-hitting and spare. He told his tales straight ahead with a sucker punch you didn’t see coming. Almost perfect for film and TV right out of the box.
After writing a Studio 57 script in 1955, in 1957 “The Incredible Shrinking Man” was filmed from Matheson’s screenplay based on his book.
Matheson seesawed between screenwriting and novels writing his amazing tales and also doing some at-the-time traditional television including “Combat!” “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and more.
He also dabbled in other genres like Westerns, and his World War II tale “The Beardless Warriors” which was made into a movie called “The Young Warriors.”
A perfect marriage of concept and writer came together on Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” which featured Matheson’s penchant for shock endings. Some of his 16 episodes, more than anyone except Serling and Charles Beaumont, included the horror/scifi classic “The Invaders” starring Agnes Moorhead, and are considered the best of that breakthrough TV series.
“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is perhaps the most well-known Twilight Zone episode, where a young William Shatner sees a horrifying gremlin on the wing of an airplane - but can’t convince anyone that this creature exists and is trying to crash the plane.
Mattheson’s fame would only grow with “The Last Man On Earth” starring Vincent Price and written by Matheson and William Leicester. It was based in Matheson’s “I Am Legend” novel and was an instant hit. Although the 2002 film “28 Days Later” showed post-apocalyptic, viral-infected beings quick enough to chase you down and eat your brains, Matheson had already done this in his 1962 book. The film adaptation “The Last Man On Earth” went back to the lumbering, slow paradigm that was popular at the time but Matheson showed again that his ideas were already far ahead of the curve.
In the 60's and 70's Matheson was definitely a hot commodity and did a ton of prose and film, and TV work.
According to Wikipedia, QUOTE: He adapted five works of Edgar Allan Poe for Roger Corman's Poe series, including House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and The Raven (1963). ENDQUOTE.
His “Trilogy Of Terror” with the demonic tiki doll that scared the living shit out of my sister, was one of three of his shorts stories put into that anthology movie.
In the 70's Matheson novels were continually turned into films including “Bid Time Return” which became “Somewhere in Time”, and “Hell House” which became the movie “The Legend of Hell House.”
In 1973 he won an Edgar Award for his TV movie “The Night Stalker” which was then adapted to the TV series “Kolchak: The Night Stalker.” He continued to work with director Dan Curtis, a legend in his own right, for many other horror productions.
It seems now as if Richard Matheson’s work touched many legends of Hollywood including Steven Spielberg whose first feature “Duel” in 1971 was a Matheson screenplay.
Matheson had tremendous range. From the inspirational “What Dreams May Come” staring Robin Williams to the horrifying“A Stir of Echoes” starring Kevin Bacon nothing seemed beyond his scope. War stories, westerns, horror, scifi he transversed it all including in 1999, a non-fiction book “The Path” inspired by his research in psychic phenomena.
"The Last Man on Earth," "The Omega Man," and the recently produced "I Am Legend" in 2007 starring Will Smith - and countless knockoffs from Matheson’s original novel in 1954, continue to carry on the quiet and unassuming man from New Jersey’s legacy.
“I Am Legend” was chosen by The Horror Writers Association as the vampire novel of the century.
Matheson, a legend himself, had 88 film credits, 100's of novels and short stories including in multiple dozens of collections, and millions and millions of admirers.
Richard Matheson died of natural causes at the age of 87. But his groundbreaking writing continues to inspire new generations of writers and filmmakers.