Four years after graduating from Michigan State University with a B.A. in English, Jack Epps Jr. met with Jim Cash, his former screenwriting instructor who also earned his B.A. in English from MSU, at the MSU Union Grill. The duo discussed movie ideas and decided to join forces. They went on to write ’80s and ’90s blockbusters like Turner & Hooch, Dick Tracy, and Top Gun.
“I can’t imagine my life if I had not gone to Michigan State,” Epps said. “I wouldn’t have written Top Gun.”
A freshman in the fall of 1968, Epps planned to pursue pre-med to become a doctor, but his 8 a.m. chemistry class taught him otherwise as he uncovered inspiration elsewhere.
His American Thought and Language professor assigned his class to write a short story in the voice of an admired writer. Epps chose Ernest Hemingway and found adventure in the process, so he continued to explore on-campus opportunities.
“The university gave me a lot of latitude to try different things,” Epps said. “I put together a unique class schedule that allowed me to be somewhat playful in academia.”
“I can’t imagine my life if I had not gone to Michigan State. I wouldn’t have written ‘Top Gun.’”
Through Michigan State, he also earned his pilot license and played goalie on the freshman hockey team.
“I didn’t make varsity, which was actually good for me,” he said. “Instead, I found film. I turned my passion for hockey into a passion for film.”
In 1972, Epps graduated from the College of Arts & Letters and moved to Los Angeles. With Andy House, another MSU graduate, he wrote a handful of scripts for television programs such as Hawaii Five-O and Kojak.
“I learned a lot working with Andy on how to pitch and get out there,” Epps said.
Eventually, House moved on and became a producer. That’s when the meeting at the MSU Union occurred and the Epps/Cash partnership took flight.
With Epps in Los Angeles and Cash in East Lansing, the pair collaborated from 2,200 miles apart. Over the next decade, they wrote and sold six scripts to major Hollywood studios.
“The university gave me a lot of latitude to try different things. I put together a unique class schedule that allowed me to be somewhat playful in academia.”
“We were earning a living,” Epps said, “but you want to get your movie out there and see if it’s working.”
In the early 1980s, Epps met with Jerry Bruckheimer, who pitched a movie about a Navy fighter pilot school — Top Gun.
“I thought, I’m a pilot. Maybe the movie won’t get made, but at least I’ll get a jet ride out of it,” Epps said. “My experience at Michigan State is the reason I took the project.”
He and Cash wrote the lead character, Maverick, with Tom Cruise in mind. When developing the cocksure young pilot, he reflected on his time as a walk-on goalie at MSU.
“There can only be one starting goaltender,” Epps said. “Going through that experience was about persevering and fighting to be number one.”
Top Gun premiered in 1986 and became the highest-grossing film of the year. Over the next two decades, Epps and Cash wrote screenplays for eight major motion pictures.
At MSU, Epps fell in love with two other things: his wife, Cynthia, and presenting his student films in lecture halls. Today, he’s married with two daughters, Elizabeth and Kerri Ann.
“Going to Michigan State was a transformative experience. It allowed me freedom and gave me places to discover myself in ways that have enriched my life beyond my imagination.”
He’s also a Professor and the Jack Oakie and Victoria Horne Oakie Endowed Chair in Comedy at in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. In 2016, he wrote the screenwriting manual, Screenwriting is Rewriting: The Art and Craft of Professional Revision.
In Fall 2008, Epps was the commencement speaker for Michigan State University’s commencement ceremony, at which time, he also was awarded an honorary doctorate. In addition, he is a recipient of the Michigan State University Spartans in Hollywood Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Going to Michigan State was a transformative experience,” Epps said. “It allowed me freedom and gave me places to discover myself in ways that have enriched my life beyond my imagination.”
Originally published by Spartan Alumni Magazine, Winter 2023 issue.