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Richard Matheson: His 10 Greatest TV Achievements
June 25, 2013  | By David Bianculli  | 1 comment

The works of author Richard Matheson, who died Sunday, June 23 at age 87, included or inspired such films as I Am Legend, Somewhere in Time and The Incredible Shrinking Man. It’s his TV work, though, that demands extra special attention, at least from us…

Matheson (right) wrote famous big-screen adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s The House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum in the Sixties (both starring Vincent Price), and alternated between the movies and TV for most of his career. It is in TV, though, where he made his most indelible contributions of all.

Matheson was so prolific, and so important, that a Top 10 list of his greatest TV achievements would crowd out, among other things, a dozen additional episodes of The Twilight Zone, as well as installments of Thriller, Amazing Stories, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, even The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.

What such a Top 10 list would include, however, encompasses some of the most iconic fantasy TV moments ever. William Shatner as the most frightened airplane passenger ever. Agnes Moorehead as a mute woman fighting off tiny space invaders. Dennis Weaver as a meek motorist being chased by a killer truck. Darren McGavin as an old-fashioned newspaper reporter on the trail of a modern vampire. Karen Black being terrorized by a tiny, deadly Zuni fetish doll.

And that’s just the half of it.

What a career. What an imagination. What a legacy.

Here, as a very subjective ranking — full of quality from him and admiration from me — is a Top 10 List of what might be considered Richard Matheson’s Greatest TV Hits:

1.  “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” The Twilight Zone, CBS, 1963. It’s one of the most iconic episodes of Rod Serling’s classic The Twilight Zone series, which puts it among very rarified company indeed. William Shatner plays a nervous airline passenger who looks out his window and thinks he sees a furry gremlin messing with the plane’s engine. And he’s right.  John Lithgow played the same role in Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1983, when Matheson’s story was featured as one of the segments in the film version. As for the TV original, the episode starring Shatner will be repeated by Syfy July 4, 9:30 p.m. ET, as part of its annual Twilight Zone holiday marathon.

2.  “The Invaders,”  The Twilight Zone, CBS, 1961.  Another classic Twilight Zone classic. Agnes Moorehead plays a woman at a remote farmhouse who investigates a strange noise on her roof, only to find that a tiny spaceship has landed on her roof, and that its two tiny passengers are intent on engaging her in a fight for survival. The woman, who never speaks, battles for her life, and ultimately wins. The twist ending (52-year-old Spoiler Alert!): the spacemen are from Earth. This installment, too, will be repeated by Syfy July 4, at 5:30 p.m. ET.

3.  Duel.  ABC, 1971. Matheson wrote the original story and the screenplay for this 1971 telemovie, a clever, suspenseful tale based on the simplest of premises: What if, during a long drive across a remote part of the country, an ordinary motorist were terrorized by a giant truck rig? Dennis Weaver plays the everyman; the driver is never seen in full, just as extension of the animalistic truck. Brilliant, very visual made-for-TV movie, directed by a young man named Steven Spielberg. Four years later, he would adapt the climactic image as his finale for Jaws. Encore is televising Duel Friday, June 28, at 9:15 a.m. ET.

4.  The Night Stalker. ABC, 1972.  Matheson wrote the teleplay for this made-for-TV movie, based on the story by Jeff Rice. Darren McGavin plays a Front Page-type newspaper reporter — hat and coat right out of an earlier era — who comes to believe the unbelievable, that a vampire is living, or at least undead, in modern times. This set records as the highest-rated telemovie of its time, and led to both a movie sequel (The Night Strangler) and a spinoff series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

5.  Trilogy of Terror. ABC, 1975.  Yet another telemovie. For this one, Matheson provided the stories for all three parts of the trilogy, and co-wrote the teleplay for the most memorable one. Karen Black plays four roles in the three stories — and in the final part of the trilogy, she plays a woman who finds herself alone in her apartment, hunted by a small but very malevolent Zuni fetish doll with a sharp knife and even sharper teeth. Special effects of the day were limited, but not Matheson’s imagination, and he made this one of the scariest TV moments of the decade.

6.  “The Enemy Within.”  Star Trek, NBC, 1966.  This episode, televised as the fifth installment of the original Star Trek series, had William Shatner’s Captain Kirk beside himself after a transporter malfunction. Literally beside himself, because the transporter split Kirk into two opposing emotional polarities: one meek, the other violent. Series creator Gene Roddenberry shares screen credit with Matheson for writing this episode, but, once again, it’s Matheson teaming with Shatner that creates a TV classic.  

7.  The Dreamer of Oz.  NBC, 1990. Matheson wrote the teleplay for this very entertaining telemovie, and co-wrote the story with David Kirschner. It tells the story of L. Frank Baum, the author of the Oz books, and all the travails and creative laps it took him to get there. John Ritter plays Baum, and the teleplay finds ways to generate wonder even from the most mundane of biographical facts — such as that, when stuck for inspiration for a name to his mythical land, Baum looked around his office and saw his two-drawer filing cabinet. The top drawer read “A-N.”  The second, the inspirational one, “O-Z.”

8.  Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  CBS, 1974.  This telemovie version, originally scheduled to run in the fall of 1973, was pre-empted by news coverage of the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew. Agnew never resurfaced, but Dracula did, the following year, with Jack Palance in the title role. Matheson wrote the script, Night Stalker producer Dan Curtis directed, and the name was eventually changed, to Dracula, once Francis Coppola bought rights to the full title for his own movie version decades later.

9.  The Martian Chronicles.  1980, NBC.  Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson share credit for the scripts for this miniseries adaptation of Bradbury’s famous stories. Rock Hudson stars, along with Darren McGavin (again), Bernadette Peters, Roddy McDowall and others. This ambitious sci-fi miniseries wasn’t the hit that NBC was hoping to achieve in those heady days of the TV miniseries, but give it credit for reaching for the stars. Or, at least, for Mars, which the story has astronauts from Earth reaching, for the first time, in 1999.

10.  “Nick of Time,” The Twilight Zone.  CBS, 1960.  From Season 2 of The Twilight Zone comes another Matheson classic — less familiar than “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “The Invaders,” certainly, but just as rewarding. It’s about a honeymoon couple who suddenly become ensnared by a diner-top fortune-telling device, and convinced that it really does have the power to predict and affect their lives. Patricia Breslin plays the wife, and William Shatner — thereby accounting for 30 percent of the shows on this list — plays the superstitious husband. I predict that Syfy is repeating this one, also: July 4, 2:30 p.m. ET.


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You're automatic recall is a thing of wonder, Dave. And the analysis is splendid. Matheson's work constitutes national treasure.
Jun 26, 2013   |  Reply
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