Over a career that spanned more than six decades and encompassed the mediums of literature, film and television, writer Richard Matheson crafted classic tales of horror, science fiction and fantasy. After making a deal to write the screen adaptation of his novel for "The Incredible Shrinking Man" (1957), he quickly made a name for himself working on a cycle of Edgar Allan Poe films with director Roger Corman and as a contributing writer on Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone" (CBS, 1959-1964). Matheson later teamed with future film giant Steven Spielberg for the first time on the TV movie "Duel" (ABC, 1971). Other television triumphs included the screenplay for the influential "The Night Stalker" (ABC, 1972), an acclaimed interpretation of "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (CBS, 1974), and the cult-classic "Trilogy of Terror" (ABC, 1975). His fiction work proved to be a nearly inexhaustible well of inspiration in Hollywood, as exemplified by feature films such as the time-traveling romance "Somewhere in Time" (1980), the supernatural murder mystery "Stir of Echoes" (1999), and "I Am Legend" (2007), the third big-screen adaptation of his novella of the same name. Uncomfortable with the term "genre writer," Matheson, a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, was nonetheless responsible for sparking the imaginations of readers, audiences and generations of filmmakers with stories that never failed to deliver on the fantastic. He died in 2013, with his influence apparent in countless modern interpretations of horror and science fiction.
Born Richard Burton Matheson on Feb. 20, 1926 in Allendale, NJ, to Norwegian immigrants Fanny and Bertolf, he was raised in Brooklyn, NY, where he graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1943. After serving as an infantryman in World War II, Matheson earned a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 1949. Having written short fiction in his youth - several early pieces were published in a local newspaper while he was still a high school student - he published his first work as a professional writer in a 1950 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Indicative of the dark themes and moral issues that would permeate his future works, the short story "Of Man and Woman" was the disturbing tale of a monstrous child locked in the cellar by his horrified parents. Matheson began churning out more short fiction for periodicals such as the soon-defunct Weird Tales, and saw the publication of his first novel Someone Is Bleeding in 1953. An avid film fan since childhood, he had long desired to write screenplays, and saw his opportunity when Universal Pictures expressed an interest in buying the rights for one of his recent science-fiction novels. Matheson agreed to sell the rights, on one condition - that he was also allowed to write the screenplay for "The Incredible Shrinking Man" (1957).
The doors to Hollywood began to open for Matheson, if only to the world of television, where he wrote episodes for several series, until the heads of American International Pictures, Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, approached him about adapting some of the works of Poe. Starring Vincent Price as the mad patriarch of a family plagued by death and madness, "House of Usher" (1960) was the first in string of Corman-directed Poe tales written by Matheson. The films "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1961), "Tales of Terror" (1962), and "The Raven" (1963) followed in quick succession, each more deliciously schlocky than the last. At about the same time, he also began contributing scripts to the iconic anthology series "The Twilight Zone" (CBS, 1959-1964). Responsible for the all-time classic episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," Matheson ultimately went on to pen a vast quantity of the show's episodes, second only to creator Rod Serling and series scripter Charles Beaumont. His 1954 novella I Am Legend, a chilling story of a lone human trying to survive in a world populated entirely by vampires, was transferred to film 10 years later in the form of "The Last Man on Earth" (1964). The film, starring Vincent Price as the non-vampire, was a deep disappointment to Matheson - so much so that he used an alias on the credits. It would not be the first time he felt this particular property had been mishandled.
In yet another contribution to one of television's most revered series, "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69), Matheson wrote the fan-favorite episode "The Enemy Within," in which Captain Kirk (William Shatner) is separated into two versions of himself - one good, one evil - after a transporter malfunction. In a bit of television serendipity, Shatner was also the star of the "Twilight Zone" episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." The next director to adapt one of Matheson's literary works proved to be much more sympathetic - to say nothing of talented - than previous collaborators. Based on his short story of the same name, "Duel" (ABC, 1971) was young director Steven Spielberg's first feature-length effort. Taut and thrilling, the story of a motorist (Dennis Weaver) stalked by a homicidal truck driver who is never seen, was a masterstroke of efficient storytelling, and helped pave the way for Spielberg's future success. Another attempt to bring I Am Legend to the screen came in the form of "The Omega Man" (1971), starring man-of-action Charlton Heston as Robert Neville. Although the film eventually achieved the status of a beloved cult-classic with fans, Matheson found it so far removed from the source material that he simply did not consider it an adaptation in the proper sense.
Back on television, Matheson took on the job of adapting someone else's work for the screen with the made-for-TV movie "The Night Stalker" (ABC, 1972). Based on the novel by Jeff Rice, the thriller followed dogged reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) as he investigated a series of murders in Las Vegas that he believed to be the work of a vampire. "The Night Stalker" garnered the highest ratings of any TV movie ever at the time, and earned Matheson an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1973. He also penned the sequel "The Night Strangler" (ABC, 1973), which led to a short-lived series, also starring McGavin. Years later, writer Chris Carter would cite the films and show as a major influence on his long-running series of paranormal investigation, "The X-Files" (FOX, 1993-2002). Other television projects for Matheson included the horror anthology series "Ghost Story" (NBC, 1972-73), later renamed "Circle of Fear," which he helped develop along with producer William Castle. The writer next provided his own screen adaptation for "The Legend of Hell House" (1973), a modern twist on the haunted house tale that was based on his 1971 novel Hell House and starred Roddy McDowall and Clive Revill as psychic investigators delving into the mysteries of the eponymous dwelling. The following year, Matheson took on the task of adapting yet another version of "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (CBS, 1974). Directed by Dan Curtis and starring Jack Palance as the blood-thirsty Count, the atmospheric tale of gothic terror was considered by many to be the most faithful screen version of Stoker's original vampire novel.
Matheson continued to find success in the medium of television. Particularly memorable was his contribution to the TV-movie horror anthology "Trilogy of Terror" (ABC, 1975). Directed once again by Curtis, each of the three vignettes was based on short stories written by Matheson, and each starred Karen Black in a different role. He provided the screenplay for the final segment, titled "Amelia," adapted from his tale "Prey." Another in a long line of cult-classics penned by Matheson, it would become famous for the nightmarish images of the Zuni fetish doll viciously attacking a terrified Black. Working from the source material of another master of the genre, Matheson adapted Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles" (NBC, 1980) for an ambitious three-part miniseries. Hamstrung by the limited special effects of the time and the expectations of an audience anticipating lasers and spaceship battles, the project performed far under expectations. Inspired by a particularly fetching photograph he had seen of 19th-century American stage actress Maude Adams, Matheson's novel Bid Time Return told the story of a love that transcended time. Five years later, he adapted it to the screen in the form of "Somewhere in Time" (1980), in which a lovesick writer (Christopher Reeve) travels to the past in order to woo a prominent actress (Jane Seymour), with whom he had fallen in love after seeing her picture. At the time of the film's release, Matheson declared it to be the most successful screen adaptation of any of his works of fiction. The film went on to earn a cult-like following, despite not performing well during its initial theatrical release.
Matheson revisited his television past as a contributing screenwriter for the feature film adaptation "Twilight Zone - The Movie" (1983), including an update of his classic episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." The film met with mixed reviews, and unfortunately, became known more for the tragic deaths of star Vic Morrow and two child actors during its production than it would for its box-office performance. On a more upbeat note, after nearly 35 years as an author, Matheson was given the Lifetime Achievement World Fantasy Award in 1984. The prolific writer kept busier than ever over the next several years, penning the screenplay for the second sequel to the original summer blockbuster, "Jaws 3-D" (1983), contributing to Steven Spielberg's Serling-esque anthology series "Amazing Stories" (NBC, 1985-87), and co-writing a screenplay with son Richard Christian Matheson on "Loose Cannons" (1990), a screwball comedy starring Gene Hackman and Dan Aykroyd. Other film versions of early Matheson novels included "What Dreams May Come" (1998), starring Robin Williams as a man who literally battles heaven and hell to reunite with his wife (Annabella Sciorra), and "Stir of Echoes" (1999), in which Kevin Bacon is contacted by the ghost of a girl murdered in his house months earlier.
After years of gestation and multiple directors and actors being attached to the project, the third attempt to bring Matheson's vaunted novella to the screen at last came to fruition with "I Am Legend" (2007), this time starring Will Smith as Neville. Although it veered from the source material just as widely as its predecessors, the film, nonetheless, was a box-office smash, going on to become one of the top-grossing movies of the year. Director-writer Richard Kelly chose Matheson's short story "Button, Button" - originally published in Playboy in 1970 - as the basis for his thriller "The Box" (2009). Also interpreted as an episode of "The Twilight Zone" (CBS, 1985-87) - a revival of the original series - the story centered upon a financially desperate couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) who are offered $1 million by a mysterious gentleman (Frank Langella) if they press the button in a plain wooden box. There is, however, one stipulation - once the button is pressed, somewhere, someone unknown to them will die. Using Matheson's original tale merely as a jumping-off point, Kelly's narrative left audiences confused and disappointed. The result was a major theatrical flop.
In recognition for his contributions to genre fiction, film and television, Matheson was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010, alongside the likes of Ray Harryhausen and Isaac Asimov. Never slowing down or content to rest on his laurels, in 2011 Matheson released his 29th novel, the fantasy romance Other Kingdoms. The same year, his tale "Steel" provided the basis for the hit robot-boxing movie "Real Steel," starring Hugh Jackman. Unveiling yet another book in 2012, Generations proved to be his last published novel before his death in the summer of 2013 at the age of 87. Through his prolific and always-imaginative output for the page, television and big screen, Matheson is in no danger of being forgotten.