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Passing of a sci-fi legend

by Greg Belfrage

I was more than a bit saddened to learn of the death of author Richard Matheson.  You may not recognize Matheson's name, but chances are good you've seen his work. 

Matheson's most popular novel, "I am Legend", has been the basis of three films.  "The Last Man on Earth" starring Vincent Price (1964), "Omega Man" starring Charlton Heston (1971) and "I am Legend" starring Will Smith (2007) are chilling tales of a lone man pursued by zombies and vampires.  According to Wikipedia, the novel "was influential in the development of the zombie genre and in popularizing the concept of a worldwide apocalypse due to disease."

Matheson also wrote "The Shrinking Man".  When the book became the 1957 movie "The Incredible Shrinking Man", he wrote the film's screenplay.  In fact, five of Matheson's novels have been turned into major motion pictures. 

However, Matheson's most memorable work may have been on the small screen.

Matheson wrote 16 episodes of "The Twilight Zone", including some of the series most celebrated episodes.  William Shatner's creepy encounter with a gremlin in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" came from the wonderful mind of Richard Matheson.

He wrote for a number of science fiction and horror themed television shows, such as "Alfred Hitchock Presents" and "Thriller".

One of Matheson's most popular teleplays was the 1971 television movie, "Duel".  Dennis Weaver played a businessman pursued across the isolated California desert by a madman driving a truck.  The movie was directed by a young kid just getting his start in Hollywood, Steven Spielberg.

I was 8 years old when I first saw "Duel" and it scared the life out of me!  I'll never forget Dennis Weaver's frantic efforts to escape the unseen truck driver who repeatedly tries to run him down.

Much of the success of "Duel" has been credited to Steven Spielberg's fantastic direction.  However, it was Matheson who hatched the unnerving story of a man relentlessly stalked by a lunatic behind the wheel of a monstrous truck.

My favorite Matheson teleplay comes from "Star Trek".  "The Enemy Within" offers an intriguing exploration of the human soul and has been consistently selected as a favorite by fans of the original series.

During a transporter malfunction, Captain Kirk's good and bad attributes are split into two men.

Spock explains the situation like this, "We have here an unusual opportunity to appraise the human mind, or to examine, in Earth terms, the roles of good and evil in a man. His negative side, which you call hostility, lust, violence... and his positive side, which Earth people express as compassion, love, tenderness."

The 'good' Kirk is kind and moral, but increasingly weak and unable to make decisions.  The 'evil' Kirk is decisive and confident, but brutal and violent.  In the end, it is the 'good' Kirk who discovers the courage to overcome the situation while his 'evil' counterpart cowers in fear.  

Kirk realizes that the 'evil' side of himself, while distasteful, is part of what makes him an exceptional leader.  Its exactly the kind of morality tale for which "Star Trek" became famous.

Richard Matheson was 87.  He leaves behind a rich legacy of thought-provoking science fiction and entertainment.  Godspeed, Richard, and thank you.

Photo credits: Youtube 

Greg Belfrage is an avid Star Trek fan, serious Batman toy collector and hopeless geek.  He hosts the morning show on KELO Newstalk 1320 AM / 107.9 FM.