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Jim Cash; Professor, Half of 'Top Gun' Screenwriting Duo

March 29, 2000|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jim Cash, an educator and the seldom-seen half of a successful screenwriting team on such films as "Top Gun" and "Dick Tracy," has died at the age of 59.

Cash, who wrote with his former student, Jack Epps Jr., at computers 2,000 miles apart, died Saturday in East Lansing, Mich. Officials at Michigan State University, where Cash taught, said he had been under hospital treatment for an intestinal ailment.

A three-time college dropout, Cash completed his degree in English at Michigan State in 1970 and began teaching film history and writing courses. In 1975, he met with Epps, a former student, and together they sketched out 10 ideas for screenplays on a napkin in the student union.

They sold a few scripts but labored in obscurity until "Legal Eagles," starring Robert Redford, was released in 1986. It was quickly followed by the international box office blockbuster "Top Gun" with Tom Cruise.

Their third big-screen success, "The Secret of My Success," starring Michael J. Fox, hit theaters within the year.

Although Warren Beatty and others had a hand in the many scripts of "Dick Tracy," Cash and Epps were credited with the final version of the screenplay for the 1990 movie. They also co-wrote 1989's "Turner and Hooch," starring Tom Hanks, and "Anaconda," the Jon Voight thriller released in 1997.

Most recently, Cash and Epps wrote "The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas," scheduled for release this spring.

Last month, the two signed a contract for their first foray into television--writing a pilot episode for an action adventure series called "The Force." The proposed series is based on the real-life Delta Force, soldiers from the Army's elite Green Berets and Rangers who are trained for counter-terrorist action around the world.

Cash always said that Epps handled structure--a pilot himself, Epps interviewed 40 Navy pilots and flew combat training missions with them to research "Top Gun"--and that he specialized in dialogue. Epps handled most of the Hollywood meetings, and Cash stayed grounded in their native Midwest.

They collaborated by computer modem years before the Internet made computer conversations commonplace.

"The interesting thing," Cash told The Times in 1986, discussing the duo's long-distance writing partnership, "is that out of our two strong egos we create a third, combined ego which, or who, knows more than either of us alone. Something between us knows what's really right. The third person is the partnership. The nice thing is, we don't have to pay the third person."

Born in Boyne City, Mich., Cash periodically left college to write, telling The Times in 1986: "I thought of myself as an Olympian in training. I wrote only dialogue for two years, filling notebooks with it. I audiotaped old movies and listened to them. You learn more about dialogue that way."

During one of the college interludes, Cash lived in New York's Greenwich Village and supported himself as an apartment building custodian. During another period, he lived in Grand Rapids, Mich., working in a factory and writing all night.

He said he started out writing "those inevitable first novels as the Tragic Young Man," but one morning at 3 a.m. realized he was not a tragic young man; he turned on the television, saw a rerun of "Casablanca" and decided to focus on writing screenplays.

Cash also became a very popular teacher, attracting as many as 600 to his classes. He also established several scholarships for film production and performing arts.

Cash is survived by his wife and four children.

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