June 26, 2013

Richard Matheson, celebrated sci-fi writer, dies at 87

BY ADAM BERNSTEIN The Washington Post

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This 2004 photo shows writer Richard Matheson. Matheson, the prolific sci-fi and fantasy writer whose "I Am Legend" was transformed into a film three times, died Sunday, June 23, 2013. He was 87. (AP Photo/Los Angeles Times, Beatrice de Gea)

The book was filmed several times, initially in 1964 as a low-budget thriller with Vincent Price called "The Last Man on Earth" and again in 1971 with Charlton Heston under the title "The Omega Man." Will Smith's 2007 version reverted to Matheson's original title.

"I Am Legend" was a basis for director-writer George Romero's 1968 zombie film "Night of the Living Dead." Matheson called it an homage to his original story. "Homage," he quipped, "means I can make the picture and I don't have to pay you for your book."

Richard Burton Matheson was born Feb. 20, 1926, in Allendale, N.J., to Norwegian immigrants. He was 8 when his parents separated, and he grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his mother, a Christian Scientist whom he described as "very distrustful of the outside world."

At a young age, he devoured books and began writing short stories. One of his earliest forays into horror featured birds pecking on schoolyard bullies.

After Army service in World War II, he graduated in 1949 from the University of Missouri with a journalism degree and settled in Southern California with an ambition to write for the movies.

In 1952, he married Ruth Ann Woodson. Besides his wife, survivors include four children.

His screenplay for "The Incredible Shrinking Man" earned Matheson a prestigious Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation with director Jack Arnold. Matheson also collaborated with the low-budget auteur Roger Corman on adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe thrillers starring Vincent Price -- "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1960), "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1961) and "The Raven" (1963).

In a wide-ranging career, Matheson's output included westerns such as "Journal of the Gun Years" (1991) as well as a well-received World War II novel, "The Beardless Warriors" (1960). His book "Bid Time Return," published in 1975, became the popular, time-traveling romance movie "Somewhere in Time" (1980), starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.

Matheson was also drawn to metaphysical themes in fiction such as "A Stir of Echoes" (1958) and "What Dreams May Come" (1978), both of which were turned into movies.

As much as he disliked being pigeonholed as a horror and science-fiction writer, Matheson was resoundingly successful at it. And he was unabashedly opinionated on what made it good.

Stories drenched in blood and gore were cheap shortcuts, he said. He preferred structuring his work around rising dread, allowing the slowly revealed desires and vulnerabilities of his characters to guide the story.

One of his most cited was "Button, Button," in which a couple is offered $50,000 to push the button on a gadget -- in return, however, a stranger is killed. The story, first published in Playboy in 1970, was made into a 2009 feature film, "The Box," starring Cameron Diaz.

"The typical Richard Matheson story is where a husband and wife are sitting down to have coffee and cake when something strange pops out of the sugar bowl," Matheson once said. "I just think that people identify with fantasy more if you can get the story closer to their daily lives."The Associated Press

Richard Matheson was a prolific writer of the "offbeat" and influenced a generation of writers, including Stephen King.


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