Skip to main content
Skip to navigation
University of Missouri

He Was Legend

Iconic sci-fi author Richard Matheson dies.

Richard Matheson

Several of Richard Matheson’s novels have been adapted as major motion pictures, including What Dreams May Come and Somewhere in Time. Photo by Beatrice De Gea, Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times.

Without Richard Matheson, there might not be a Steven Spielberg or a Stephen King. Matheson, who graduated from MU with a journalism degree in 1949, moved to California in 1951 where he wrote himself into the history books as a master of sci-fi and horror. He died June 23, 2013, at 87.

Matheson’s novels, short stories and screenplays often evolved from a simple what-if question. What if a vampire pandemic wipes out the human race except one man? His answer, published in 1954, was I Am Legend, which was adapted to film three times, most recently in 2007 starring Will Smith. His 1956 novel The Shrinking Man, twice adapted for the silver screen, wondered what happens if a man starts to shrink after being exposed to radioactivity and insecticide.

Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson, BJ ‘49, hosted The Journalism School Show at MU in 1947. Photo from the 1947 Savitar.

His 1971 short story Duel was adapted for the screen and directed by a young Spielberg, his first feature-length film. “Richard Matheson’s ironic and iconic imagination created seminal science-fiction stories,” Spielberg said in a statement about Matheson after his death. “For me, he is in the same category as [Ray] Bradbury and [Isaac] Asimov.”

Among Matheson’s most notable TV credits are 16 episodes of The Twilight Zone, including the quintessential “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” starring William Shatner as an airplane passenger who spots a gremlin on the wing of his plane.

“He fired my imagination by placing his horrors not in European castles and Lovecraftian universes but in American scenes I knew and could relate to,” King wrote in a tribute on his website.

In a 2007 Q-and-A with Columbia Daily Tribune writer Pete Bland, BJ ’93, Matheson reminisced about his time at Mizzou. He recalled winning a $25 prize for a concert review; serving as the music critic for the Columbia Missourian; writing The Journalism School Show with late classmate Norman Kennelly, BA ’49; and taking writing classes with the late English Professor William Peden.

“When I took the class,” Matheson told Bland, “most of the students in it would be writing stories about war, the apocalypse and race relations, and I’d be writing a little story about a Christmas tree that killed people.”