Who do Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and George A. Romero all have in common? His name is Richard Matheson and his influence is legendary.
Richard Matheson isn’t exactly a household name. But that’s about to change. With the recent release of the blockbuster hit film ‘I Am Legend’ based on the novel of the same title, a new generation is about to be introduced to the magic of Matheson.
But this man needs no introduction. Ray Bradbury calls Matheson, "One of the most important writers of the 20th century". For the past five decades, firmly into the 21st century, every A-lister in Hollywood has worked with the legend that is as much a star maker as he is a phenomenal writer. A little-known director by the name of Steven Spielberg got his first break in 1971 with Matheson’s script ‘Duel.’ A childhood fan of horror-zine mags, Stephen King credits Matheson as "the writer who influenced me the most." The rest for these two of course, is history.
There seems to be no degree of separation when it comes to Richard Matheson and seasoned actors. From Peter Lorre to Robin Williams, Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve, Matheson’s work has attracted the biggest stars. The lure of Matheson’s roles is in the seemingly ordinary people who are thrown into extraordinary circumstances.
The challenge with Matheson’s work for actors and directors is keeping the absurd believable. His scripts avoid formula, relying instead on mystery and nuance. On paper however, his tall tales may read like too tall an order to pull off.
Consider the premise of cult classic film ‘Somewhere in Time.’ A man falls in love with a photograph of an actress, travels back in time using only his mind, gets the girl, and then loses her to a penny.
Christopher Reeve and co-star Jane Seymour not only made the love story seem plausible, (it’s hard to look at a penny the same way again), the enduring cult classic has one of the largest international fan clubs, (INSITE). Over 25 years later, and fans still make the annual pilgrimage to the famous setting of the film, The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, MI. Not bad for a time travel film that didn’t use a time machine, a device Matheson adamantly avoided.
The ‘Zone’s’ Best
His simplicity makes for stronger stories that remain entrenched in pop culture memory. Take a terrified passenger on board a red eye flight bound for disaster with an ugly ghoul swiping at the wing and one of the most memorable episodes from Rod Serling’s ‘The Twilight Zone’ series is none other than Matheson’s ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ starring William Shatner. Matheson has made more airplane windows stay firmly shut than any in-flight movie.
The classic episode was later remade with John Lithgow in the movie adaptation and even the hit animated show, ‘The Simpson’s’ did a spoof for their ‘Treehouse of Horror’ series. Matheson laughs, "When they satirize you, you’re in."
The only episode Matheson wrote for ‘Star Trek’ (testing William Shatner’s mettle yet again), introduced the famous Vulcan pinch by Dr. Spock. Titled ‘The Enemy Within,’ Captain Kirk battles Jekyll and Hyde personalities while trying to retain control over the ship. This episode was the first to fully explore Dr. Spock’s lineage and is a favorite among die-hard fans.
Smith as Sole Survivor
But it is ‘I am Legend’ that may be the most fascinating series of incarnations yet with the last survivor on earth, Robert Neville played by Will Smith. Following after Vincent Price in ‘The Last Man on Earth’ and Charlton Heston in the abysmal ‘The Omega Man’, Smith may not seem like an obvious choice. A self-described fan of sci-fi, (and starring in more than a few to have earned his chops), Smith revitalizes this challenging role with a grim sensitivity that had been lost on his veteran predecessors.
Matheson says of Smith, "He’s marvelous. He’s a very talented actor. I see all these predictions for the Academy Awards, and I haven’t seen his name. He had one of the most difficult parts to do. Until the woman, there are no exchanges with anyone else except the dog." (Read MR Hunter’s review here…)
Anatomy of a Vampire
Inspired by the film ‘Dracula’ as a teenager, Matheson asked, "If one vampire is scary, what about a world full of vampires." Years later he revisited the idea while living in Los Angeles, where the novel takes place. "I believe that it is probably the only science fiction novel that I ever wrote because I explain the vampire in biochemical and psychological terms. It had never been done before."
Terror vs. Horror
But he hates gore. Can’t stand it. "The most I can stand is the creature jumping out of John Hurt in ‘Alien.’ I believe that is a masterpiece of horror. It’s a little hard to watch chainsaws cutting off people’s heads and hands. I don’t dig it. I’m a terror writer, not horror."
It is his pioneering sensibility that has inspired so many storytellers and filmmakers, but his influence has been a mixed blessing. Although he admits that on the whole, "Hollywood has been very good to me," he’s had to endure creative theft in the veil of empty flattery. George A. Romero’s zombie hit ‘Night of the Living Dead’ is easily the worst offender. Following on the heels of Vincent Price’s ‘The Last Man on Earth’ – (the first adaptation of "I Am Legend") Romero denied any plagiarism, ducking under the cover of homage. All these years later Matheson admits, "I’m not angry with him, but it’s a credit I can do without."
Which Came First?
There’s a bit of the chicken and egg dilemma with Matheson’s work. His signature style has been modeled for years so much so that his own work is being compared to recent shape-shifters in the genre.
For instance, the latest adaptation of ‘I Am Legend’ starring Will Smith has been met with mixed reviews, including yours truly. While it captures the spirit of Matheson’s novel, critics complain the film eventually derails into a formulaic copy of ’28 Days Later.’ Much like ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ ’28 Days Later’ (which opened in 2002) bears a close resemblance to the 1954 novel, but the producers never admitted Matheson’s influence. Hmm…it seems the parent is now being treated like the bastard child.
Although Matheson finds this adaptation "Marvelous. It captures the spirit of my book very well." He adds, "I’m hoping sometime, when I’m like 100 years old, they’ll do a small, period picture about my book. That they’ll use the actual plot of my book and the vampires idea."
On the Boards
Always looking for a fresh outlet for his work, Matheson has turned his hand toward playwriting. INSITE fans will be thrilled to hear that ‘Somewhere in Time’ may be hitting the boards soon. Currently, Matheson is hard at working on the book, and says the timing is right for a film "that was born to be a musical." Judging by the last couple of years of successful adaptations, ‘Somewhere in Time’ has the potential to outlive Webber’s ‘Cats.’
He’s also working on several original plays, one called ‘Woman’ a philosophical horror about the aftermath from the ultimate battle of the sexes. "I think women will like it," Matheson chuckles.
Variety is the Price in Publishing
Whether it’s television, film and now theatre, Matheson has left a lasting impression on the imagination of fans and artists. His influence has launched careers, but his own recognition has never reached paperback mill status. Unlike his protégés King, Koontz and Rice — their work notorious for lining airport shelves and publishing troves, Matheson’s success has been far more discreet. His persona is an enigma, but Matheson admits it is due to his lack of niche writing.
"I would’ve gotten a lot more known had I stayed with fantasy and horror like "I Am Legend." If I had just done one after the other like Stephen King did it, I probably would’ve become a lot more popular and higher earning. But I couldn’t do it. It was never in me. I’m amazed that I had five western novels published. Usually I get bored after a couple of them. I love westerns so I did that. I wanted to do a love story [‘Somewhere in Time’ based on the novel "Bid Time Return"], a war story ["Beardless Warriors"], a haunted house ["Hell House"], and two metaphysical books."
Walk the Path
His metaphysical work "The Path: a New Look at Reality" is a touching, philosophical journey of personal reflection and discovery. Based on the book by Harold W. Percival, "Thinking and Destiny" Matheson explores the age-old questions about our significance and role here on earth. A manifest destiny directed by the mind, "The Path" is simply written, and was hailed by both authors of "The Celestine Prophecy" and "Conversations With God."
A father of four and a grandfather, Matheson also wrote the popular children’s story, "Abu and the 7 Marvels."
Passing the Torch
His inspiration first got its start at home. Three of his children have gone on into the fields of television and film, and even though Matheson admits, "I would’ve been glad to say ‘don’t do it.’ Not because of me but because it’s so hard," he adds "But it’s better than working in a glue factory."
His eldest son, Richard Christian Matheson, is a novelist and screenwriter in his own right. Sometimes confused with his younger brother Chris Matheson known for his popular teenage duo Bill and Ted of ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’, Richard Christian was head writer at the tender age of 29 on the TV series, ‘The A-Team’ and years ago co-wrote a script with his father called ‘Face-Off.’ The script was sold, but endured several rewrites and a title change to ‘Loose Cannons’ starring Gene Hackman and Dan Aykroyd. He has also collaborated with his father on short story collections and wrote the successful novel "Created By."
His daughter Ali Matheson is an award winning producer and creator for television.
Of all topics, Matheson is probably the most passionate about his family, his wife Ruth, and the success of his four children, (his other daughter, Bettina, is a driven social worker in San Francisco). He isn’t one to talk about himself, a frustrating quality but an endearing one. His 55 years in the business, his body of work, all this pales by comparison next to his family. Unlike other writers bent on self-destruction through addiction, Matheson has avoided the pitfalls long associated with the craft. He credits his wife Ruth, an accomplished psychologist, for raising the children even when his career caused heavy demands on his time.
In a previous interview with Matheson, he recalls the difficulty of raising a family and writing full-time:
"When you have a wife and four children, you can’t have a routine. You just sit down and write. I used to write almost seven, six days a week, and my wife finally said, ‘C’mon. You’re not spending any time with us.’ So now I’m very lackadaisical. I’ll write from about maybe one to five in the afternoon."
Like King’s wife Tabitha, Matheson’s wife of fifty-five years, Ruth, has been his first audience and editor. Matheson adds, "She’s very down to earth."
The Hemingway of Horror
Since Matheson, fantasy and horror has never been the same. His journalistic style matched only by his inventive mind has made him the Hemingway of horror. Without his works, there wouldn’t be writers like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Brian Lumley or Anne Rice. His books and films have set a rather high bar to which all other movies and stories aspire. Although he has had to endure an insidious brand of creative identity theft, it speaks volumes to his legacy that has proved so inspirational. More than not, Matheson has received a lion’s share of recognition by his peers and succeeding generations. Dean Koontz says, "We’re all a lot richer to have Richard Matheson among us."
Degrees of Separation
In case you’re wondering how many degrees of separation between Kevin Bacon and Richard Matheson, Bacon starred in ‘A Stir of Echoes’ a film based on Matheson’s book. Not bad for a guy that everybody knows without knowing it.