Tue
Dec 28 2010 10:34am

Richard Matheson—Storyteller: The Twilight Years, Part I

Every Tuesday, Matthew R. Bradley takes us through the career of Richard Matheson. Catch up with the series through the Richard Matheson—Storyteller index.

The Twilight Zone episode Terror at 20000 feet by Richard Matheson

After the sadly mishandled Somewhere in Time (1980) and the unfunny The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), Universal did Matheson another disservice when his original script for Jaws 3-D (1983) was rewritten by Carl Gottlieb, a veteran of the first two entries. Adding insult to injury, story credit went to Guerdon Trueblood, a stranger to Matheson who had written many nature-runs-amok TV-movies, and the three shared a Razzie Award nomination for Worst Screenplay. Matheson’s ingenious idea placed a great white shark in the circulation system of a marine park, which forced water over its gills and obviated the need for it to remain in constant motion, while Universal’s Sid Sheinberg insisted that the shark be pursuing the sons of Sheriff Martin Brody.

That same year, Matheson co-wrote the ill-fated Twilight Zone—The Movie, one of four Zone incarnations in which he was involved, but first, let’s look at his contributions to Rod Serling’s original 1959-64 CBS anthology series.

In preparing to launch the show, Serling had immersed himself in SF literature, just as Matheson did when he began selling stories during the early ’50s. Already an Emmy Award-winner for his Playhouse 90 teleplays “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “The Comedian,” Serling was contractually obliged to provide the majority of Zone scripts, but he was determined to use both the material and the services of some of the genre’s greatest practitioners, including Matheson and his friend and sometime collaborator, Charles Beaumont.

Before hiring Matheson to write original teleplays for The Twilight Zone, Serling purchased his stories “Disappearing Act” and “Third from the Sun” and scripted them for the first season. The former was very loosely adapted as “And When the Sky Was Opened,” starring Rod Taylor, Jim Hutton, and Charles Aidman (who replaced Serling as the narrator of the show’s 1980s version) ominously vanishing one by one as the doomed crew of a pioneering space flight. “Third from the Sun,” singled out in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre as a turning point for Zone viewership, featured Fritz Weaver as a scientist who, along with his friend and their families, takes flight in a stolen spaceship to avoid an impending nuclear war, bound for a planet that turns out to be Earth.

Pitched to Serling and producer Buck Houghton with a single sentence, Matheson’s Zone debut, “The Last Flight,” concerned a British World War I pilot who flies through a strange cloud over France and inexplicably lands at a modern-day SAC base.  “A World of Difference” cast Howard Duff as a bewildered businessman who suddenly finds himself on a film set, being addressed as the actor playing his “role.” Matheson wound up the first season with “A World of His Own,” in which playwright Keenan Wynn conjures characters into existence with a Dictaphone, banishing them by burning the section of tape on which they appear; he playfully disposes of Serling, who made his first on-camera appearance after narrating the earlier episodes offscreen, the same way.

His two second-season offerings, “Nick of Time” and “The Invaders,” remain among the most memorable, one starring William Shatner (six years before Star Trek, for which Matheson also wrote the classic episode “The Enemy Within”), and one featuring a tour-de-force performance by veteran actress Agnes Moorehead. In the former, Shatner effectively portrays a honeymooner who becomes obsessed with the prognostications of a fortune-telling machine in an Ohio café. In the latter, Moorehead essays the dialogue-free role of a poor, drab, and hungry old woman besieged in her home by the inhabitants of a tiny spaceship, and it is only after she has toppled, barricaded, bludgeoned, and burned her tormentors that we learn the “invaders” were from Earth.

A decidedly mixed bag, Matheson’s trio of third-season efforts kicked off with “Once Upon a Time,” a humorous episode starring silent comedian Buster Keaton as a time traveler from 1890, bemused by the pace of change in 1962. Ripped off in Poltergeist (1982), hilariously spoofed on The Simpsons as “Homer3,” and scored by the great Bernard Herrmann, “Little Girl Lost” was Matheson’s first Zone adaptation of his own work, the tale of a child who falls into the fourth dimension (inspired by an anecdote involving Matheson’s elder daughter, Bettina). Easily the weakest of the lot, “Young Man’s Fancy” featured a miscast Alex Nicol as a character ten years his junior, whose selfish desire to return to his boyhood leads him to summon his mother’s ghost.

The fourth season introduced a new producer, Herbert Hirschman, and a short-lived new format, unwisely expanded from thirty to sixty minutes, for which Matheson adapted two of his stories. In “Mute,” Ann Jillian appears as a twelve-year-old telepath (whose literary counterpart was a boy), raised without speech in an unusual scientific experiment, and adopted by a well-meaning but uncomprehending Pennsylvania sheriff and his wife—with unforeseen consequences—after she is orphaned. Boasting powerful performances by Jack Klugman and Ross Martin, “Death Ship” depicts the plight of a crew that lands on another planet, seeking signs of intelligent life, only to find an exact duplicate of their ship crashed on the surface, with their bodies lying inside.

Under new producer Bert Granet, the fifth and final season included more of Matheson’s favorite episodes than any other, beginning with “Steel,” a tale of robot boxers and a die-hard human that is currently being remade with Hugh Jackman and Evangeline Lilly as Real Steel.  “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” featured Shatner, in his only other appearance on the series, as an airline passenger who can’t make anybody believe he sees a gremlin tampering with the wing.  Probably the best-known Zone episode, it has inspired a 12” Sideshow Collectible—as did “The Invaders”—plus countless spoofs and homages, e.g., The Simpsons (as “Terror at 5½ Feet”), Futurama (where the show is parodied as The Scary Door), and Saturday Night Live (in a 2010 sketch with Jude Law).

Postponed from its original airdate of November 22, 1963, due to JFK’s assassination, “Night Call” was directed by genre mainstay Jacques Tourneur—who began shooting Matheson’s The Comedy of Terrors (1963) eight weeks later—and starred Gladys Cooper as an elderly invalid frightened by phone calls from a macabre source. Matheson’s only original teleplay produced that season, “Spur of the Moment” cast Diana Hyland as a girl pursued by a fearsome figure, all too clearly her mature self, trying to warn her against marrying the wrong man. William Froug, who supplanted Granet, canceled his teleplay for “The Doll,” but Matheson had the last laugh in 1986, when it became an episode of Amazing Stories and earned John Lithgow an Emmy Award.


Matthew R. Bradley is the author of Richard Matheson on Screen, now in its second printing, and the co-editor—with Stanley Wiater and Paul Stuve—of The Richard Matheson Companion (Gauntlet, 2008), revised and updated as The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson (Citadel, 2009).  Check out his blog, Bradley on Film.

1 comment
JaSunni Productions
1. JaSunni Productions
Speaking of Charles Beaumont, we just released a documentary about the Twilight Zone writer on DVD. Beaumont died of early onset dementia and aging at age 37. The documentary features interviews with William Shatner, Roger Corman, Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, William F. Nolan, Ray Bradbury, Forrest J Ackerman, and many others.

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