Pop Culture

Richard Matheson, author of sci-fi books and movies, dies at 87

Xavier ROSSI / Today
Richard Matheson in 2000.

Richard Matheson, whose science-fiction stories enthralled many and were often turned into movies and television scripts, has died at his home in Calabasas, Calif., his family announced in a private Facebook post Monday.

The post was quoted by science fiction and fantasy publisher Tor Books. According to Tor, Matheson's daughter Ali Marie Matheson wrote, "My beloved father passed away yesterday at home surrounded by the people and things he loved…he was funny, brilliant, loving, generous, kind, creative, and the most wonderful father ever…I miss you and love you forever Pop and I know you are now happy and healthy in a beautiful place full of love and joy you always knew was there."

Matheson's 1954 novel, "I Am Legend," told the story of Robert Neville, the last survivor of a plague that turns humans into vampiric killers, and inspired numerous zombie and apocalyptic tales. It was made into three films -- 1964's "The Last Man on Earth," 1971's "The Omega Man," and 2007's "I Am Legend."

Director George A. Romero said on the DVD commentary for his 1968 zombie classic "Night of the Living Dead" that he "ripped off" Matheson's work to create his own film. In 2007, Matheson told Entertainment Weekly he didn't "harbor any animosity" towards Romero for the theft.

His stories may have had horrific plots and creatures, but they never veered too far from reality.

''I could never write Harry Potter,'' Matheson told the magazine at the time of the "I Am Legend" movie. ''I never did fantasies about trolls. I had to write about realistic circumstances.''

Matheson's short story, "Duel," based on a true incident where he was tailgated by a trucker, was published in Playboy magazine and became a critically acclaimed 1971 television movie. Matheson wrote the screenplay and Steven Spielberg directed the film.

Matheson also wrote numerous television episodes, including 16 "Twilight Zone" installments. His most famous was 1963's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," in which William Shatner can't convince an airplane crew that a gremlin is destroying the plane from the outside.

Matheson's books were endlessly appealing to moviemakers. His 1971 novel "Hell House" became a British horror film, "The Legend of Hell House," in 1973. His 1956 novel, "The Shrinking Man," was adapted into the 1957 film "The Incredible Shrinking Man" and its 1981 take-off "The Incredible Shrinking Woman." The 1999 Kevin Bacon film "Stir of Echoes" was loosely based on Matheson's 1958 novel of the same name.

And not everything he wrote was pure horror -- his 1978 novel "What Dreams May Come," about a man who dies, goes to heaven, and then rescues his wife from hell after she commits suicide, became a 1998 Robin Williams film that won an Oscar for visual effects. And his 1975 novel, "Bid Time Return," became the 1980 romance, "Somewhere in Time."

Matheson, who was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010, inspired many of the major names in science fiction, fantasy and horror writing. The 1995 reprint of "I Am Legend" featured praise from Ray Bradbury, "Psycho" author Robert Bloch, and Stephen King, who called Matheson "the author who influenced me the most as a writer." King's 2006 novel, "Cell," is dedicated to Matheson.

"Everything Richard Matheson wrote was brilliant, scary and fun," wrote NPR host Peter Sagal on Twitter. "And he essentially invented the zombie apocalypse."