You may not immediately recognize Richard Matheson’s name, but you are familiar with his work as well as those it inspired. The prolific author produced a world of entertainment including some of the best loved episodes of The Twilight Zone. The iconic episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” featured a young William Shatner as the only man who could see a creature destroying the plane. John Lithgow reprised the role in the movie adaptation.
Matheson’s works often had a sci-fi or fantastic bent to them, telling tales of ordinary people dealing with
extraordinary circumstances. The man in “Nightmare” is a salesman who had suffered a nervous breakdown. He hasn’t done a great job of saving himself, let alone anyone else. But his fate is to be the only person who can see the gremlin, thus the only one who can save the airplane.
We can relate to Matheson’s characters, which is why his works keep getting reimagined. His book “I Am Legend,” has been a mainstream motion picture three times, most recently starring Will Smith in 2007. Its first adaptation, “The Last Man on Earth,” starred horror legend Vincent Price. Among the people it influenced was an aspiring director named George Romero, who would go on to create Night of the Living Dead.
His Twilight Zone episode “Steel” saw life again as “Real Steel,” a 2011 Hugh Jackman vehicle. The 1971 film Duel, written by Matheson, starred Dennis Weaver a motorist being hunted down by a sadistic truck driver. The director was a relative unknown by the name of Steven Spielberg.
Looking at the list of creators that admit a debt to Matheson, it’s not hyperbole to say he shaped much of 20th century pop culture. X-Files creator Chris Carter, authors Bradbury and Stephen King cite Matheson as influences on their work. The first adaptation of “I Am Legend,” “The Last Man on Earth,” starred horror legend Vincent Price. Among the people it reached was George Romero, who would go on to create Night of the Living Dead.