Think you don't know Richard Matheson's work? Think again. The author wrote for the original Star Trek and Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (including the classic ''Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,'' with William Shatner as a former psych patient who spots a gremlin on a plane). His screenplays include 1957's The Incredible Shrinking Man and Steven Spielberg's 1971 breakthrough, Duel, both based on his fiction. He's even written a children's story and two books on metaphysics.
But among his fans, Matheson is most revered for I Am Legend, his 1954 apocalyptic novel about one man surviving in a world of blood-sucking ghouls. The book, which inspired a big-budget film starring Will Smith due Dec. 14, helped drag the sci-fi and horror genres into the modern, believable present. ''I could never write Harry Potter,'' says Matheson, 81, from his Calabasas, Calif., home. ''I never did fantasies about trolls. I had to write about realistic circumstances.'' By placing the extraordinary in an ordinary context, he's been hugely influential; EW columnist Stephen King once wrote, ''Without Richard Matheson I wouldn't be around.''
Matheson hopes the new Legend movie will serve his novel better than Hollywood's two previous attempts, 1964's The Last Man on Earth and 1971's The Omega Man. ''They've never really done the book as I wrote it,'' he says. And that's not counting uncredited homages like George A. Romero's 1968 zombie flick Night of the Living Dead. '''Homage' means 'I get to steal your work,''' says Matheson. ''George Romero's a nice guy, though. I don't harbor any animosity toward him.''
The original I Am Legend is suffused with solid scientific logic and remains amazingly fresh. For the author, though, the lonely hero's sexual hunger he can't help noticing the figures of female beasts reminds him of his former self. ''I was younger at the time,'' he laughs. ''If I wrote I Am Legend today, he might be more worried about philosophy. But younger writers always have sex in their stories.''