Iconic Sci-Fi Author Richard Matheson Dies at 87

Richard Matheson I Am Legend Poster - P 2013
<p>Richard Matheson I Am Legend Poster - P 2013</p>   |   Courtesy Everett Collection
UPDATED: The writer was behind such stories as "Duel" -- which he adapted into the telefilm that elevated a young Steven Spielberg -- as well as "I Am Legend" and the "Twilight Zone" classic "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet."

Richard Matheson, the author of classic sci-fi stories such as The Shrinking Man and many iconic episodes of The Twilight Zone, has died. He was 87.

Matheson died at his home in Calabasas, Calif., of natural causes.

Brooklyn-born Matheson graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in journalism and moved to California in 1951, but he was already on the path of a fantasy and sci-fi writer: He sold his first story, "Born of Man and Woman," to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1950.

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Matheson became a master of the short story, penning dozens and dozens of stories during the course of his 40-some-odd-year career, including 1953’s Hell House and, later, 1971's Duel, which were adapted for big screens and small. (Duel, which like many of Matheson's stories he adapted himself, was the ABC telefilm that elevated a young Steven Spielberg and showed the suspense chops that he'd bring to Jaws.)

"Richard Matheson's ironic and iconic imagination created seminal science-fiction stories and gave me my first break when he wrote the short story and screenplay for Duel," Spielberg said in a statement. "His Twilight Zones were among my favorites, and he recently worked with us on Real Steel. For me, he is in the same category as Bradbury and Asimov."

In 1956, Matheson wrote The Shrinking Man, which was turned into the classic sci-fi film The Incredible Shrinking Man. The film also gave him his debut as a feature screenwriter. “My original story was a metaphor for how man’s place in the world was diminishing. That still holds today, where all these advancements that are going to save us will be our undoing,” Matheson told THR when MGM acquired the rights to develop a new movie. Matheson was writing the new screenplay with his son, Richard Matheson Jr.

Matheson’s work often has been adapted for the screen: Somewhere in Time, What Dreams May Come and Stir of Echoes have all been movies, but his sci-fi vampire novel I Am Legend was the basis for three different adaptations: 1964’s The Last Man on Earth, the 1971 Charlton Heston movie Omega Man and the 2007 Will Smith movie, I Am Legend.

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Starting in the late 1950s, he entered the television realm -- writing for series like Star Trek, Wanted Dead or Alive, Combat!, Kolchak: The Night Stalker and The Alfred Hitckcock Hour -- but it was with his 16 episodes of Twlight Zone that he influenced a future generation of storytellers such as Stephen King, Anne Rice, Damon Lindelof, Steve Niles and Seth Grahame Smith. (One of those episodes, "Steel," was expanded into the 2011 Hugh Jackman movie Real Steel.)

Among the episodes was the unforgettable 1963 installment Nightmare at 20,000 Feet starring William Shatner. Matheson talked about his inspiration for the story during a 2002 interview with the Archive of American Television.

“I was on an airplane and I looked out and there was all these fluffy clouds and I thought, ‘Gee what if I saw a guy skiing across that like it was snow?’ because it looked like snow. But when I thought it over, that’s not very scary, so I turned it into a gremlin out on the wing of the airplane.”

"We were all with him when he passed," said Matheson Jr. "It was very peaceful. Even though we were sobbing, it was beautiful in its own way. He was a majestic talent and he was every bit as wonderful as a father, a friend and a husband."

Lindelof, who co-created the TV phenomenon Lost, credits Matheson as a huge influence:

"Richard Matheson was a juggernaut of genre... But his writing never lost sight of the characters who inhabited the incredible worlds he created.  Every time I fly, I look out at the wing, just in case.  He will be profoundly missed."