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With Top Gun and Legal Eagles, Two Long-Distance Screenwriters Make Hollywood's Big-League Draft

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Rodgers and Hart, Nichols and May, Abbott and Costello—every great creative team must have had down days when they were totally sick of each other. But Jack Epps Jr., who lives in L.A., and Jim Cash, who lives in East Lansing, Mich., have found a modern way to take all the pain out of merging their brains. They just keep half a continent between them. Via phone and computer hookups, they co-wrote Legal Eagles and Top Gun, the blockbuster summer films that have made them one of Hollywood’s hottest screenwriting duos. So what if their combined phone bill reaches $1,000 per month or if they have only seen each other twice in a decade? This team makes long distance better than being there. “The good part is we don’t have to look at each other,” Epps kids. “Why should I move to L.A.?” asks Cash. “I’ve seen people who work at the same place and are always at each other’s throats.”

The back-to-back hits mean Cash and Epps are unlikely to run out of quarters for their calls. Their combined take for Legal Eagles and Top Gun probably is close to $2 million, and they stand to pull in another bundle for a Michael J. Fox vehicle filming this summer, The Secret of My Success. Blending romance, comedy and action in a way that defines Hollywood’s golden word—”commercial”—Cash, 45, and Epps, 36, obviously see eye-to-eye even if they’re not face-to-face. “People go to the movies to see things go bang, to laugh, to be entertained,” says Cash, a part-time film history professor at Michigan State. “We write for the big screen,” adds Epps, “larger than life stories.”

The two writers often divide their labors according to skill: Epps usually works on the movie’s structure and Cash concentrates on dialogue. To prepare for Top Gun, Epps interviewed 40 Navy pilots and flew combat training missions with them in F-5Fs. “It was sensational. The best. A roller coaster you can’t believe, like flying in a sports car,” he enthuses.

Months later Epps had another heady flight—this time in a private jet—to Robert Redford’s mountain condo in Utah to discuss Legal Eagles. When Cash found out that Redford admitted to occasional clumsiness, he put an episode from his own life—turning breakfast into a disastrous burned mess—into Legal Eagles. He also put himself into Tom Cruise‘s struggle to become Top Gun’s best pilot. “It was the most personal story I ever wrote,” says Cash, drawing parallels to his own career. “At 18, I was determined to be a writer. People told me only a handful make it. I said, ‘I’m going to do it.’ ”

With a phone hookup to his IBM computer, Cash sends his draft to Epps for rewriting. Legal Eagles took eight drafts to complete, but they usually finish in two. When disagreements arise between what Cash calls “two very take-control type of people,” distance helps. “If we can’t solve a problem,” Epps says, “we can just hang up the phone and walk away for a while.”

The 50-50 partnership is based on a handshake, as it has been for 11 years. In 1971, when Epps, a Michigan State undergraduate, begged his way into Cash’s oversubscribed film history course, he immediately impressed his professor. “I saw a gift in Jack,” says Cash. “He sees the heart of a story and how to get to it.” After graduation the following year, Epps moved to L.A. and sold a few TV scripts. Then, during a 1975 visit to Michigan, he decided to look up his old professor. They met over a bowl of chili at the student union and jotted down 10 movie ideas on a napkin. “Nothing really clicked at first,” says Epps, but months later he and Cash began Izzy and Moe, about two cops during Prohibition. A savvy Hollywood friend helped by telling them to beef up the humor and cut some of the social message. He also found them an agent who sold the script for $125,000 with a matching sum promised if the film was produced.

So began a typical Hollywood writing career—studios bought five films but never produced them. Dangerously, which was to star Dudley Moore, was canceled six weeks before filming. Cash and Epps wrote Dick Tracy for Warren Beatty. but it still hasn’t been filmed. “I was embarrassed to tell people I was a writer because we had nothing produced,” says Epps. “We were earning a good living, but I’d tell people I was a cameraman.” No wonder he and wife Cynthia, a nutritionist, nearly passed out when they finally saw his credit on Top Gun. “We were sitting there in the theater clutching each other,” says Cynthia.

With their names onscreen, Cash and Epps can afford to show some affluence. Epps, a Detroit native who originally wanted to be a hockey star, just remodeled his “California Cape Cod” home. Cash, who also grew up around Michigan, is adding an indoor pool to the home he and his family share with 62 pets (including 15 fish and 23 birds).

Cash and Epps want to co-produce the duo’s next film and Epps plans to direct. But if the past is any indication, this team probably won’t get together more often. When they held a reunion four years ago, Epps worried that it might ruin their unique relationship. “I got nervous about seeing him,” says Epps. “What if we didn’t like each other?” He finally decided that they had to meet at the Michigan State student union over a bowl of chili. Cash felt the same. “I brought along a gift box,” he recalls. “In it were two telephones. We picked them up and started talking. After all, we were so used to communicating that way.”