The talented fantasy writer Charles Beaumont died tragically young at the age of 38 in 1967. He is now the subject of a fascinating new documentary film by Jason V. Brock that explores his life and career. CHARLES BEAUMONT: THE SHORT LIFE OF TWILIGHT ZONE’S MAGIC MAN will be showing on Saturday, March 27, 2010 at 3:00pm at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, where many of Beaumont’s friends will be on hand to discuss his career after the screening, including Ray Bradbury, William F. Nolan, George Clayton Johnson, John Tomerlin and director and producer Jason and Sunni Brock. Marc Scott Zicree, the author of that excellent book, The Twilight Zone Companion will serve as moderator.
That same night, The Egyptian will pay tribute to Beaumont by showing a double bill of Beaumont’s 1961 adaptation of his own novel filmed by Roger Corman, The Intruder, starring William Shatner, along with Burn Witch, Burn, Beaumount’s collaboration with Richard Matheson in adapting Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife to the screen.
Since Richard Matheson will be unable to attend the Egyptian Theatre premiere of the film, due to his bad back, I recently spoke with him asking him to share some of his memories about his good friend Charles Beaumont. Here is what he told me:
LAWRENCE FRENCH: When did you first meet Charles Beaumont?
RICHARD MATHESON: After I first moved out here in 1951 he stopped by to visit me with a friend of his at my apartment and then I later went to visit him and I met his wife, Helen and his baby son, Chris. We became friends right away and decided to collaborate on writing scripts for half-hour TV-shows, because we were both new at it and television was still very new. So we started writing scripts and learning from each other. We wrote for many different shows, including a lot of westerns. The first one we did was Buckskin, followed by Wanted: Dead or Alive and later on, I wrote six episodes of Lawman on my own. By the time The Twilight Zone came along, we were both established so we wrote all of our Twilight Zone shows on our own.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Had you seen or were you influenced by the classic John Ford and Howard Hawks movies before you began writing the western TV shows you worked on?
RICHARD MATHESON: Oh, sure. I’d have seen quite a few of them, but whether they influenced me or not, I have no idea.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: When you were starting out, both you and Beaumont shared the same agent, Ingo Preminger, who was Otto Preminger’s brother. Did that connection ever get you any interviews for a job with Otto Preminger?
RICHARD MATHESON: It did for Chuck, because at one time he was going to write the screenplay for Bunny Lake is Missing. He had met Otto Preminger when he went out to Michigan and watched them shooting Anatomy of a Murder with James Stewart and Lee Remick. I don’t know exactly what happened, but Chuck never wrote the screenplay for Bunny Lake is Missing.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: By the time you collaborated on Burn Witch, Burn, both you and Charles Beaumont were already established as solo scriptwriters, so what led you to do this particular script together?
RICHARD MATHESON: We went out to a bar one night and started talking about the novel Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber. It had already been made into a movie at Universal that was called Weird Woman with Lon Chaney, but we both felt it hadn’t been done very well. We also thought that someone should re-make it. Being good friends, we decided to do it ourselves. At the time, Chuck and I were both working for American International, so we did it on speculation, because we knew we didn’t have the rights to the novel. When we finished the script we showed it to Jim Nicholson (the President of American International), and Jim Nicholson liked it very much. AIP then brought the rights to the book from Universal and paid each of us $5,000 for the script.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How did your collaboration actually work?
RICHARD MATHESON: What we did is have a meeting and work out the basic storyline and then we divided up the writing, so I wrote the first half and Chuck wrote the second half. Our script writing styles were very similar, so after we wrote our own sections, we met again and combined our two sections into a final draft. We would also make comments and suggestions about the work we each had done on our own.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Who decided to call it Burn Witch, Burn?
RICHARD MATHESON: I think it was probably Jim Nicholson. I didn’t like that title, because it was taken from a totally different novel [by A. Merritt], who had also written Seven Footprints to Satan. Chuck and I wanted to use the original title from the novel, Conjure Wife. I remember Chuck also had this idea for promoting the film, suggesting that every man should wonder if his success was really due to his own efforts, or if he was possibly married to a witch.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In England the picture was re-titled The Night of the Eagle.
RICHARD MATHESON: Which was a slightly better title. Later, I did a script for AIP that was an adaptation of my short story “Being.” I expanded the story into an action–science-fiction picture. It was about a couple on a cross-country trip and they get caught on this farm where a farmer and his wife imprisons them so they can feed them to an alien creature. That was when I learned to never make a joke at AIP. This creature was a bunch of ooze, so I said, “Listen, we can call it ‘Galactic Octopedular Ooze,’ and you can call it G.O.O. for short.” Then the next thing I know, there was an announcement from AIP that they are making a picture called G.O.O! Don’t open your mouth and make bad jokes, because they’ll come back to haunt you. That was the lesson of that. That was actually a very good script, but once again it never got made. Later on AIP turned it into a TV movie called It’s Alive (1969) with Tommy Kirk. I never saw it, but I’m sure it was awful.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: That’s interesting, because Daniel Haller told me that right after Peter Lorre made The Comedy of Terrors, he had a meeting with Lorre about directing him in your script for Being, and he said Peter Lorre was quite excited about playing the farmer who feeds people to this creature and that Elsa Lanchester was going to play his wife!
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, and Peter Lorre was also going to appear in another script I wrote for AIP called Sweethearts and Horrors, where he played an inept magician who had this fire sequence in his magic act and he burns down every theater he has ever worked in. Unfortunately, Peter died before they could get it made, but he was a very charming man. Early on, they did a TV show from my short story “Shipshape Home” that featured Peter Lorre as a janitor in this apartment building, but it was re-titled something else. I think my original title was The Janitor With Three Eyes – that’s what sticks in my mind, but it was only shown on some obscure TV show, so it was hardly seen [The show was actually re-titled Young Couples Only and shown in 1955 on Studio 57, a little-known anthology series.]
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You and Charles Beaumont each did four scripts for Roger Corman, mostly for his Edgar Allan Poe films. The big exception was when Charles Beaumont did the rather daring script for The Intruder in 1961, which was about racial tensions in the south. Did either Beaumont or Corman ask you to appear in that picture?
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, they did but I just didn’t feel like going out to Missouri while they were shooting it. The Intruder may actually be Roger’s best picture, yet it was the only time he made a film that didn’t make any money. I thought William Shatner was superb in it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: William Shatner also appeared in two episodes you wrote for The Twilight Zone around that time: “Nick of Time” and the classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, and those were two of my own favorite episodes. I thought Bill Shatner did a marvelous job in both of them. In fact, when I moved back to Long Island in 1954, I used to go out of my way to watch Bill Shatner whenever he appeared on a television show, so I was very pleased when he was cast in those episodes of The Twilight Zone.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What was your reaction after Charles Beaumont started acting so strangely due to his illness?
RICHARD MATHESON: Well, initially we all thought he was drinking too much, but it turned out that wasn’t the problem. He was becoming ill, but for a long time nobody had any idea of what was wrong with him. Finally the doctors diagnosed him as having either Alzheimer’s or Picks disease.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What were some of your favorite short stories by Charles Beaumont?
RICHARD MATHESON: “Black Country” was one of my favorites. I remember Chuck reading it to all of us when we got together at his apartment one night, and we were all blown away by it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: “Black Country” is mentioned in Jason Brock’s documentary as the first work of fiction that ever appeared in Playboy magazine.
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, and Chuck wrote some great articles for Playboy, as well. He became a regular contributor, and wrote an article about Chaplin, and he and Bill Nolan got together and wrote this anthology of racing articles called The Omnibus of Speed.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: That’s something else that is brought out in this new documentary, Beaumont’s love of car racing. Did you ever go to see him race?
RICHARD MATHESON: No, I never did. I wish I had.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Since Beaumont died so young it’s strange to consider that he might just as easily have died in a car racing accident.
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, and that would have probably been a better way to go!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: After seeing this new documentary on Charles Beaumont, I started reading some of his early stories and I was astounded by how subversive some of his ideas must have seemed during the conformist McCarthy era of the ’50s. In “Miss Gentilbelle,” a sadistic mother makes her son dress up and act as if he were a little girl, while in “The Crooked Man,” (first published in Playboy in 1955) Beaumont gives a very vivid description of a gay sex club in the future, where same sex couples are the norm, and heterosexual marriage is outlawed!
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, Chuck wrote some really wonderful stories.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Even before “The Crooked Man” appeared, I was surprised to find the scene in your first novel, Fury on Sunday (1953), where you have the main character allow a brutal guard in a mental hospital to have sex with him, then afterwords he kills the guard and escapes! Years later, you included another graphic depiction of a gay rape scene in Hunted Past Reason.
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, and when I wrote a screenplay for Hunted Past Reason, which I originally wanted to call To Live, I cut that rape scene out because it really accomplished nothing. There was already enough motivation for him to chase the guy, so it really wasn’t needed. I also wrote a six-hour mini-series with Peter Straub, for ABC. It was based on Philip Wylie’s old novel, The Disappearance. It was the study of what the world would be like if there were nothing but woman, and what the world would be like if there was nothing but men. Wylie tried to explain it with Mickey Mouse Science-Fiction, which was really unnecessary.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Both The Crooked Man and The Disappearance would certainly end the debate over gay marriage!
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, or else everybody would have to become celibate, like a priest.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You don’t use a computer or the Internet, do you?
RICHARD MATHESON: No, I’m still living in the past.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s rather strange that two noted science-fiction writers like yourself and Ray Bradbury don’t use a computer or the Internet.
RICHARD MATHESON: That’s right. I just finished a new novel and it was all written down by hand.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: The last time we spoke you told me you hadn’t written anything for over a year, because you weren’t in a writing mood. Then after Bill Nolan heard that he said, “So what. You’ve already written enough!”
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, but since then I got back in the writing mood and I started a new novel that I’ve just now finished. It will be coming out early next year. It’s called The Other Kingdom, but I don’t believe in telling people what it’s about beforehand. But now I don’t feel like writing again!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You also have a lot of upcoming movie projects in development. Hugh Jackman will be starring in Real Steel, based on your short story “Steel “; Summit Entertainment is preparing Countdown, based on your story, “Death Ship”, and the producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald are going to make your ghost story Earthbound into a movie.
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, I just signed the contract for Earthbound.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Did you make any suggestions to them about who you would like to see direct it?
RICHARD MATHESON: No, I had nobody in mind. I think two women are going to be producing and directing it.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Really? Maybe Katherine Bigelow will direct it.
RICHARD MATHESON: I don’t think so, but she would be a good choice.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Are you writing the script for Earthbound?
RICHARD MATHESON: No, I seldom do scripts anymore. I did write a script for Earthbound a long time ago when Roger Corman wanted to buy the book from me. I had lunch with Roger and he wanted to shoot it at his studio in Ireland and I had already written the script, but for everything, all the rights to both the script and the book he only offered me $25,000! I would have retained no rights or residuals, whatsoever. By that time I didn’t need the money, so I turned him down. It wouldn’t have made any money for me, compared to what it would have made for Roger.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Did you see the presentation to Roger Corman of his honorary Academy Award?
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, I watched that on TV and it was nice, because Roger has been a good independent producer for a long time.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: After writing the first two Poe movies for Roger Corman do you recall why he asked Charles Beaumont to write The Premature Burial instead of you?
RICHARD MATHESON: I couldn’t do them all. I only wrote with one hand! The type on one would still be warm, and they’d be at my door, ready to shoot the next one. I was probably busy doing something else at the time, so Roger got Chuck Beaumont and Ray Russell to write The Premature Burial. At the time, we were both working on The Twilight Zone, so when I wasn’t available to do The Premature Burial, Roger called in Chuck.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I see you have just been inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, in Kansas City.
RICHARD MATHESON: No, it’s in Seattle. Or maybe it’s in Kansas too, I don’t really know.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I thought it was sponsored by The University of Kansas, but I never heard of them before, so maybe I’m wrong.
RICHARD MATHESON: I had never heard of them, either.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s nice though, because it’s an award for your lifetime of achievement.
RICHARD MATHESON: Well, my lifetime still isn’t over yet, although I’m only alive thanks to my doctors!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: For which all your fans are very grateful. In fact, since Charles Beaumont’s career mirrored yours in so many ways, it’s fascinating to speculate on the great success he might be enjoying now, if only he had lived.
RICHARD MATHESON: Oh, there’s no doubt that if Chuck hadn’t died he would have become one of the top screenwriter’s in the business. He was such a talented man. Chuck was also much more involved in writing for major movies than I was.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: One thing I liked about this new documentary on Charles Beaumont was that nearly all of his friends are interviewed and talk about him. The only major voice missing is Rod Serling, due to his own early death.
RICHARD MATHESON: Yes, sadly both Chuck and Rod died before their time.