The Omega Man
Films in BOLD will Air on TCM * | VIEW TCMDb ENTRY
In the 1970s, science fiction cinema took a turn to dystopian nightmares. Not that such things were unknown in earlier films -- in the wake of the atomic bomb there were a number of nuclear Armageddon movies -- but the increasing number of films (and causes for the end of the world) reflected a shift from optimism to pessimism. The world was coming to an end thanks to pollution (Silent Running, 1972), overpopulation (Soylent Green, 1973), ecological collapse (No Blade of Grass, 1970), and of course good old nuclear war (A Boy and His Dog, 1975), not to mention whatever disaster causes Night of the Living Dead (1968).
The Omega Man (1971), the second film based on Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, is the story of the last human in a world decimated by plague. Charlton Heston read Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend during a jet-set commute from Britain to America and thought there was a movie in it. He didn't realize at the time it had previously been made as The Last Man on Earth (1964), an American-Italian coproduction starring Vincent Price as the title character, but decided to go ahead after screening the earlier version ("fortunately for us, though it starred my friend Vincent Price, it was a pretty torpid piece," he recalled in his autobiography) and Warner Bros. signed on to produce. Heston was the man of action for dystopian science fiction of the day. He had previously taken on the simian rulers of Planet of the Apes (1968) and went on to star in Soylent Green, an adaptation of Harry Harrison's grim overpopulation novel Make Room! Make Room!. The Omega Man, by contrast, would leave Heston alone on screen for much of the film. He is, after all, the last man on Earth, or so he believes.
In Matheson's original story, a plague wipes out humanity but leaves a few survivors infected with vampire-like symptoms, an element that was preserved in The Last Man on Earth. In The Omega Man, the plague is germ warfare, a theme very much current in the early 1970s, and the victims aren't nuclear-age vampires but albino night dwellers, a mutant breed by way of a religious cult that sees humanity as the real plague. Heston kept the name of Matheson's hero, Robert Neville, but changed him into a military doctor who injects himself with an experimental serum before society collapses entirely. The film also keeps the location of Matheson's novel, Los Angeles, though that was as much a matter of convenience as anything else. The biggest physical problem the production faced was turning Los Angeles into a deserted city, where no human activity could be seen for miles, at least for a few key establishing shots. The solution was to shoot in early dawn hours of the weekend. The opening shot was filmed on the first day of shooting, a Sunday morning in November, 1970, with Heston driving through vacant Los Angeles streets, eerily empty of its citizens. Heston decorated his character's fortified hideaway with Renaissance paintings borrowed from the L.A. County Museum ("Surely one of my first acts, were I really in such a fix," he later wrote) and a marble head of Caesar Augustus from the Getty that served as his silent chess partner.
Heston and producer Walter Seltzer hired John William Corrington to adapt the novel, who enlisted his wife, Joyce H. Corrington, as his collaborator. "I have a PhD in chemistry and germ warfare was very much on my mind," she remembered in an interview in 2003, and her husband had a degree in philosophy, "so we became the two sides of Robert Neville." In addition to the germ warfare, they made the other central surviving human into a young black woman. "We were thinking, you have the last man on earth meet the last woman on earth, what's the conflict? So we thought, let's make her black and you can get a little racial pizzazz in there. And she did."
The studio wanted to cast Diahann Carroll, an Emmy nominated veteran of TV and movies, in the role of Lisa, the first uninfected person Robert has seen in two years, but Heston was impressed with the screen test of an unknown young actress named Rosalind Cash. "[S]he's a very good actress and perhaps a more textured person," he wrote in his journals. "I think this is the choice to make." A brief role in Klute (1971) aside, Heston gave the actress an impressive screen debut, though she was a little overwhelmed starring opposite Heston. "It's a spooky feeling to screw Moses," she told him while shooting their love scene.
Apart from Anthony Zerbe, who co-starred with Heston in Will Penny (1968), as the leader of the nocturnal hordes, it was a cast of young, largely unknown actors, including Paul Koslo as the motorcycle-riding Dutch and Eric Laneuville as Lisa's younger brother, a teenager in the early stage of infection. Laneuville went on to a successful career on TV as both an actor (Room 222 and St. Elsewhere) and director of dozens of shows and TV movies.
Throughout the production, Heston was busy developing another project, a film version of Antony and Cleopatra, and he was constantly flying out to test actors, interview directors, and meet potential investors. It was a tough sell. The studios were shy of producing a Shakespeare adaptation and Heston's last four films had done tepid business. The Omega Man changed that, becoming his first box-office hit in two years. When production ended, he left for Spain to make Antony and Cleopatra (1972), even if he had to direct it himself. The book, meanwhile, was remade once again more than thirty years later under its original name, I Am Legend (2007), with Will Smith in Heston's role. The idea of the last man on earth is indeed a potent one.
By Sean Axmaker Bibliography The Actor's Life: Journals 1956-1976, Charlton Heston. Dutton, 1976.
In the Arena: An Autobiography, Charlton Heston. Simon & Schuster, 1995.
The Primal Screen, John Brosnan. Orbit, 1991.
Apocalypse Movies: End of the World Cinema, Kim Newman. St. Martin's Griffin, 1999.
The Omega Man DVD supplements. Warner, 2003.