ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A celebrated author of science fiction has died. Richard Matheson was 87. He may be best remembered for writing some of the most disturbing episodes of "The Twilight Zone" and "Star Trek." That includes this one, in which an evil duplicate of Captain Kirk wreaks havoc aboard the Starship Enterprise.
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SIEGEL: As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, Matheson left behind reams of darkly, engrossing science fiction and much of it was made into movies.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: How many authors could claim one of their novels was made into not one, not two but three different movies about a man inheriting a post-apocalyptic wasteland? Starting with "The Last Man On Earth" in 1964.
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ULABY: "I Am Legend" was originally published in 1954. It's probably partly responsible for today's wave of shows about mutant zombies. John Adams edited an anthology about end of the world scenarios. It's called "Wasteland." I interviewed him for a story six years ago when "I Am Legend's" most recent adaptation came out.
JOHN ADAMS: The whole world's become vampires and there's the one guy left and it doesn't look good.
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ULABY: In the original book, "The Last Man Standing," fortifies his little house against former friends of neighbors. They come out at night thirsting for his blood. The first film adaptation feels closest to the novel, but it's not close enough for Adams.
ADAMS: Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay for that movie, but then they made so many changes that he made them take his name off of it.
ULABY: "The Last Man On Earth" stars Vincent Price in what Adams calls a unforgivably hammy performance.
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ULABY: The remake from 1971 pitted Charlton Heston against the ghoulish survivors. "The Omega Man" is notable now for a then-daring interracial romance and an amazing opening sequence that might be the template for half the world's video games. Heston cruises a deserted downtown Los Angeles in a red Ford Galaxy convertible, picking off mutants with a gun.
AKIVA GOLDSMAN: My first exposure to the story was "Omega Man."
ULABY: Akiva Goldsman wrote and produced the third adaptation of "I Am Legend," a blockbuster starring Will Smith.
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ULABY: But you did not need to be science fiction nerd to be influenced by the work of Richard Matheson. You just needed to turn on the television.
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ULABY: Matheson wrote more than a dozen "Twilight Zone" episodes. One of the most famous starred William Shatner as an unstable airplane passenger convinced he's seen someone or something on the wing.
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ULABY: That was an era when people watched for science fiction stars like Richard Matheson or Harlan Ellison on the credits. Novelist Michael Koryta told NPR in 2002 that Matheson's gift was selling skeptic readers on implausible stories. He grounded you in reality, then slowly slipped in the surreal.
MICHAEL KORYTA: All of the sudden, as strange as the events become, there's a part of you that says maybe, just maybe this could happen and maybe it could happen to me.
ULABY: That was the goal exactly, said Richard Matheson in an interview with the Archive of American Television in 2002.
RICHARD MATHESON: My ambition was to change the thinking of the world and I realize that's a little heavy.
ULABY: Richard Matheson hoped his scariest stories about worlds gone terribly wrong might equip his readers for reality. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.