Billy Hayes Rides the Midnight Express Again - An Interview with the Author

When Billy Hayes was arrested in 1970 at the Istanbul airport with two kilos of hash taped to his body, his life did a quick turnaround – from privileged Boomer baby and happy-go-lucky New Yorker to inmate in a Turkish prison. Memorialized in the book and film “Midnight Express” and currently a newly released documentary, “Midnight Return,” Billy now travels the world to tell his tale in person, setting the record straight about how, from ages 23 to 28, he managed to survive - and even grow as a person. In its West coast premiere, Billy will share his story with audiences at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles on July 28, July 29, and July 30, 2017.

Billy was interviewed about his upcoming show and added some juicy tidbits from his harrowing – but also enlightening – five years in the Turkish penal system.

Billy Hayes - Photo courtesy of the artist

WHAT WAS LIFE LIKE IN A TURKISH PRISON?

Life in a Turkish jail is not as regimented as it is in American prisons. We were mostly isolated from the general Turkish populati0n. Most of the foreigners were kept together in one cell block. The only time we saw people from another block was during our recreation periods. Then we went into a small courtyard with another cell block. Because we were all tourists, they put us together with the kids’ cell block because they were less of a threat. There were children there from eight to 16. Some were in for shoplifting, and a couple were in for murder. One 16-year-old guy had killed his sister because she prostituted herself to feed the family. It was an honor killing – something to be proud of - and he became the leader of the cell block for kids.

I was lucky because of my age. I was a little older and more emotionally mature at 23 than the younger guys. And I was physically fit and healthy, much more so than the older guys. Prison life was really hard for them. The prison ran on a system of “baksheesh.” If you wanted anything, you had to give a little gift to the guards in return – maybe a cigarette or maybe a tip. The easiest thing to smuggle into prison was money. Everybody needed money to buy things, and the guards needed the money too.

I grew to understand just how important yoga was. Day after day, there was nothing much to do. You could go crazy if you didn’t have something to do. In prison, you have no control over anything except yourself. Yoga was my answer. It saved my life in jail because it was the one thing I had control over. It made me slow down from my earlier fast life, and it made me begin to think. I learned what I needed to learn. 60’s life was easy…and then it wasn’t.

Billy Hayes and his prison friends - Photo courtesy of Billy Hayes

ARE YOU IN TOUCH WITH OTHERS WHO HAVE WERE JAILED ALONG WITH YOU?

People don’t usually keep in touch with anybody from jail after they leave. It brings back too many memories. I was there for five years, but most of the others had a small amount of time. They came and they went, and I stayed. But when you do make a friendship with somebody, it’s a deep friendship. There was a guy from England, Nick Mann. He was a brainy kid, and we still have a connection. He wrote a book called “The Dark God” about his experiences in jail.

Billy Hayes' arrest - Photo courtesy of Billy Hayes

LOOKING BACK, HOW WOULD YOU EVALUATE YOUR TURKISH PRISON EXPERIENCE?

Prison was the worst and the best thing that happened to me. I needed to get slowed down, and I needed to learn a lot of lessons. Prison turned my whole life around. I don’t know what would have happened – or where I would be today – if I hadn’t been sentenced to prison in Turkey. The whole world changed for me. After I escaped from jail, I wrote a book about my experiences which was made a movie. When I went to Cannes for the film, I met my wife. I got a lot more than I expected from those years in prison. Going public had some powerful consequences. Turkish tourism dropped 95 percent, and I was a hated man. I went back to Turkey in 2007 at the invitation of the Turks and spoke at a press conference that began to heal the breach between us. In 2014, they gave me the honor of raising the Turkish flag on Wall Street on October 29, the anniversary of the creation of the Turkish Republic, their Fourth of July.

Billy Hayes at his sentencing in 1974 - Photo courtesy of Billy Hayes

HOW DOES THIS SHOW DIFFER FROM YOUR MEMOIR AND THE MOVIE?

My story was actually a classic structure where a young man ventures out to seek his fortune, falls into a deep hole, struggles mightily and against all odds, survives, and even succeeds. People can relate to that. Everybody has been in a deep hole at some time in their life struggling to find a way out. My story is just a bit more compact and dramatic. As it turned out, Alan Parker changed the ending of the movie. He had me kill a sadistic guard, but I never did that. That happened a few years before I escaped, and I had nothing to do with it. And Oliver Stone, who wrote the script, had me curse at the Turkish courts and the Turkish people at my trial. I never did that either. In fact, the only thing I said to the Turks was that I forgave them.

A while back, when I realized that people were still interested in hearing my story, I started to think about doing a show. Barbara Ligeti, my producer, read my script and loved the concept. So Barbara worked with me to hone and tighten it up. She was brutal, but she was right.  She said that she had a slot in 2013 at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. But because they had so many acts, each was limited to 55 minutes. I did all three shows in Edinburgh in 55 minutes. That was the bare tree. Later I added flowers and leaves, and it went up to 73 minutes.

Billy Hayes - Photo by Carol Rosegg

DO YOU THINK THAT TODAY’S AUDIENCES SEE YOUR STORY DIFFERENTLY THAN PEOPLE DID IN THE 1970’S?

Absolutely. When I first came back to the States, some people thought I was terrible for being involved with drugs and that I deserved to be locked up. Now there’s a completely different attitude towards marijuana, and it’s even legal in some states. I love the back and forth with the audience. People seem to find encouragement and inspiration from my message. My life is a cautionary tale. If people can benefit from hearing what happened, I feel I’ve done something good.

YOU’VE PERFORMED THIS SHOW NOW IN LONDON, NEW YORK, AND ALL OVER THE WORLD. WHAT’S IT LIKE TO RELIVE THE EXPERIENCE NIGHTLY IN A THEATRICAL PRODUCTION?

People who have experienced trauma typically don’t want to talk about it; but, from the moment that I arrived at JFK airport after my escape, I was surrounded by people asking questions. I never had a choice not to talk about things. Talking about it over and over – and writing about it – was cathartic and very helpful in processing my experiences. I remember when I was studying acting a few years later and Eric Morris, my teacher, confronted me with the fact that I don’t really want to talk about the details…that I made jokes about being in jail. That all that stuff I was afraid to talk about was my “gold.” Forty years later, I’m doing the show.

WHAT OTHER PROJECTS ARE YOU WORKING ON?

A documentary about my story, “Midnight Return,” is finally finished. It was screened last year in Cannes - 37 years after the original film, “Midnight Express,” premiered there. Sally Sussman, who wrote and directed the documentary, wanted to talk about the power of film and used my story and the effect this film had on Turkey. It’s being shown in Los Angeles from July 12 to July 27 at the Music Hall Theatre on Wilshire Blvd. 

I’m also making a return after 50 years to the cannabis business. I know it’s ironic, but I guess that everything that goes around, comes around. Sooner or later. Stay tuned.

And this week, I’m recording the audio book of “Midnight Express,” which will be available through Audible next month.

The West Coast premiere of RIDING THE MIDNIGHT EXPRESS WITH BILLY HAYES plays Friday through Sunday (July 28 and July 29 at 8 p.m. and July 30 at 3 p.m.) The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025. Tickets range from $25 to $35. For information and reservations, call 310-477-2055 ext. 2 or go online

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