Billy Hayes is an American writer, actor, and film director. He is best known for his autobiographical book Midnight Express about his experiences in and escape from a Turkish prison after being convicted of smuggling hashish. He was one of hundreds of U.S. citizens in foreign jails serving drug charge sentences following a drug smuggling crackdown by foreign governments.
He was caught as a student trying to smuggle four pounds of hashish out of Turkey on October 7, 1970. He was originally sentenced to four years and two months in a Turkish prison; with his release date weeks away, he learned that the authorities had chosen to penalize him with a life sentence for smuggling instead of possession.
Hayes was imprisoned at Sağmalcılar Prison in Istanbul. Following an incident in prison, he was transferred in 1972 to Bakırköy Psychiatric Hospital, described as a "lunatic asylum." The United States Department of State on several occasions pressured Turkey to transfer sentencing to the United States; however, Turkish foreign minister Melih Esenbel stated that the United States was not in a position to dispute a sentence issued by a Turkish court. Esenbel stated privately to officials that a release might be possible on humanitarian grounds if Hayes' physical or mental health was deteriorating, but in a private consultation, Hayes stated to U.S. diplomats that his experience at Bakırköy Psychiatric Hospital in 1972 was highly traumatic and he did not have confidence that the hospital would certify him for early release. Hayes also stated that he felt attempts to win early release would jeopardize his prospects of being transferred to a more desirable half-open prison. On May 12, 1975, the Turkish Constitutional Court declared amnesty for all drug offenses, which shortened Hayes' sentence from life to 30 years. He was transferred to İmralı Prison on July 11, 1975.
Declassified State Department telegrams indicated that in discussions between the U.S. embassy and Vahap Aşıroğlu, Turkish Director of Consular Affairs, Aşıroğlu believed Hayes would probably be released from prison on parole in October 1978, which in practice meant that a local prosecutor would declare him persona non grata and expel him from the country.
According to the man who lived through the real story of Midnight Express, the true story behind it is even more sensational.
And drug smuggler turned author Billy Hayes has told how delighted he is to be telling the true story on screen for the first time—40 years after he made a dramatic escape from a Turkish prison by crossing open seas and minefields.
Billy, now 63, was caught smuggling hash out of Istanbul to the US in 1970 and thrown in a hellish jail.
After his escape four years later, he told his story in the best-selling book Midnight Express, which Oliver Stone and Alan Parker turned into an Oscar-winning film starring Brad Davis as Hayes.
Full of killings and sexual assault, the film became one of the biggest hits of the 70s.
But according to Billy, who has always admitted his crimes, the film is nothing like the hell he endured in jail.
He says scriptwriter Stone invented most of the violence and the rape scenes but missed out on the most exciting part of his story—a daring escape from an island prison and the murder of a close friend who was trying to break him out.
Billy is getting the chance to retell his story now in a documentary for the National Geographic Channel as part of the Banged Up Abroad series.
He said: "As much as I like the film, I've always had problems with it and I'm so delighted to finally get the chance to really tell my story, my way, with my words.
"My mum, who could only watch the movie once, likes the new programme.
"The only thing for me was going back to the story and revisiting all the pain I caused my family—that's the worst part of it all and the bit that still comes back to me every day. The pain still feels as fresh as the day it happened."
Billy's story began in the 1960s, when he discovered marijuana and decided to make some money by smuggling it in from Turkey.
But he was caught on his fourth trip and got a four-year sentence.
He said: "I was so stupid. I felt like I was a swashbuckling pirate, James f***ing Bond, an international man of intrigue. Everything was easy until the sky fell on my head. I soon realised that my actions had consequences.
"Not only had I screwed up my own life but was causing my parents so much pain."
During his first night in the Sagmalcilar jail, 23-year-old Billy tried to steal a blanket and was hauled in for punishment by a sadistic guard called The Bear, who tied him up by the feet and battered his soles with a stick.
In the film, it's a terribly violent beating, with the implication the guard then sexually assaulted him.
But in reality, the foot smacking was an example of falaka, a light beating, and there was no sex attack.
Billy said: "They cane your feet and to outsiders it seems like a horrible thing but it's not that bad.
"At the time, I thought it was killing me, but I soon discovered that it wasn't a bad beating. Later on, I discovered what a bad beating was - they would break bones if they thought you had hash or information they wanted."
While the film is full of violence, including the fictional scene where the Billy character bites the tongue of a prison trustee and kills a guard, most of it never happened and the worst thing about it was boredom.
"Prison was mostly endless boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror.
"The hardest thing for me was having to write the first letter home to my folks."
Being incarcerated himself was one thing, but it was hurting others that was the worst part of his ordeal—and that only got worse when he enlisted childhood New York friend Patrick to secure false passports and documents to help him flee the country.
While dealing with underworld figures to buy the false ID, Patrick was murdered, leaving Billy distraught.
"Yeah, that was very bad. I'd already screwed up my own life, but then to have him die because of me was pretty much the low point and everything changed.
"I decided I just needed to do my time. I went to see his folks when I got back and that was very difficult.
"His mum was very happy to see me but they were shattered. How could you not be? I felt so bad, I told her that, and she said she was fine because I'd have done it for him.
"He is with me every single day. I'm always thinking about him in so many ways."
After he shelved his escape plans, Billy was dealt a hammer blow 54 days before his sentence was due to end, when the authorities changed his sentence to life in prison.
Facing the rest of his days in jail was too much and he soon started thinking about freedom again.
Transferred to Imrali, an island prison, he started work on his escape, which sounds like the plot of a movie in itself.
The facility was serviced by supply boats, which would always return to the mainland and never remain moored on the island. But one night, a storm left one vessel, which had a rowing boat tied to its bow, stuck at the island—so Billy took his chance.
He swam to the boat, then rowed for hours across the ocean to get to the mainland.
He said: "It was all or nothing and I was totally all in. I realised I would either make it or be caught and possibly killed. One way or another I would be free."
He spent three days in Turkey, hiding out and dying his hair black, and then made a break for the Greek border. He crossed a minefield at the Turkish border and swam across the Maritsa river, where he was apprehended by Greek soldiers.
"The Greeks asked me everything I knew about Turkish military intelligence from what I'd seen in my escape, and then deported me.
Billy's dad met him in an emotional reunion at New York's JFK airport.
He wrote up his experiences in the book Midnight Express, which was then adapted into the movie in 1978. At the Cannes premiere of the movie, Billy met his wife Wendy and they have been together ever since.
Billy moved to Hollywood and found work as an actor, writer and director, but his ordeal remains a central part of his life.
He said: "I got myself busted but I got myself out, and in that way, I got my life back and my sense of self. In the end we always get what we deserve, and that's a frightening thought."
For three decades, famed drug smuggler and writer Billy Hayes was reviled in Turkey. He was on their terror watch lists, Interpol had a warrant out for his arrest, and he basically couldn't travel. Last week, however, the American helped raise the Turkish flag up over Wall Street.
If you've seen the Oscar-winning 1978 film Midnight Express, you have a decent idea of what happened to Hayes. Oliver Stone's screenplay and Hayes's best-selling autobiographical book of the same name both recount his 1970 arrest, imprisonment, and escape from a Turkish prison five years later—but they differ in two crucial spots, and the differences helped Hayes become an object of scorn in Turkey.
"I think it was the courtroom scene," Hayes said of Stone's dramatization. "Cursing out the 'nation of pigs' and 'fucking their sons and daughters' that most incensed the Turks, even more than me killing the guard, since he was not the most sympathetic of characters."
Stone's embellishments didn't make Hayes's story better, but they certainly made his life harder.
Banged Up Abroad, The Real Midnight Express, is on the National Geographic Channel.
I said sorry to Turkey.
BILLY Hayes spent 30 years of his life trying to deal with the repercussions of the movie Midnight Express.
Eventually, he returned to apologise.
He was a huge fan of Turkey and the people, having made several trips there before he was arrested.
But the film's violent and backward portrayal of the country saw a 90 per cent drop in tourism upon its release.
Although his own book is an honest account, the film shows the country in a terrible light.
He said: "I always did get on really well with the Turks and Istanbul is a fascinating city but they have a lot of issues to deal with and they don't need my Midnight Express stuff on top of that. The bottom line is the prisons suck, the legal systems suck, but you could fill in the blanks of that with any almost country in the world. I was happy to go back there and say all this stuff again."
The Turks invited Billy to Istanbul three years ago to tell the truth about the film and his opinions about their country.
While he admits to a paranoid fear he was going to be banged up again, Billy knew he had to do the right thing. He said: "I was aware I was not a well-liked guy in Turkey. But I got a chance to say how much I like Turkey and how well I had got on with the Turks. It worked, and I now feel I have made my balance with the Turks."
He escaped from İmralı on October 2, 1975, taking a rowboat at night to Bandirma, blending in with locals and then heading westbound across the border to Greece. He was deported from Thessaloniki to Frankfurt on October 20, 1975 after several weeks' detention and interrogation about what military intelligence Hayes possessed about Turkey.
Hayes wrote a book on his experiences, Midnight Express, which was later adapted into the 1978 film of the same name starring Brad Davis. The film was directed by Alan Parker, with a screenplay by Oliver Stone. The movie differs from Hayes' account in his book. Among the differences is a scene in which Hayes kills the prison guard Hamidou "the Bear" (portrayed by Paul L. Smith), the main antagonist of the story. In fact, the prison guard was killed in 1973 by a recently released prisoner, whose family Hamidou had insulted while beating the prisoner, years before Hayes' actual escape.
The book and film adaptation were deliberately inaccurate for legal reasons. In one interview, Hayes admitted making several trips to Turkey to bring hash back to the United States. His lawyer informed him that he could be arrested again for such claims.
In 2010, in an episode of National Geographic Channel's Locked Up Abroad, titled "The Real Midnight Express", Hayes tells his version of the full story about being sent to the infamous Turkish Sağmalcilar prison, eventually escaping from the Marmara Sea prison on İmralı island. Hayes has now written the sequel books, Midnight Return (Escaping Midnight Express) and The Midnight Express Letters—from a Turkish Prison, 1970-1975, a collection of the original letters written home to family and friends during his imprisonment.
He is still active in the entertainment industry, specifically acting and writing. He appeared in the Charles Bronson film Assassination as a hired killer.
One of his successes was writing and directing 2003's Southside (later released as Cock and Bull Story in the US), which won numerous awards, including the 2002 L.A. Drama Critics' Circle award. On June 30, 2010, the National Geographic television channel aired Locked Up Abroad: The Real Midnight Express. Billy Hayes has been traveling the world with his one-man show, Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes, since it premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2013.
Interview on Midnight Express film
During the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, Alinur Velidedeoğlu, a Turkish advertiser, met Billy Hayes by chance and interviewed him on the film Midnight Express. Hayes expressed his disappointment with parts of the film adaptation, especially its portrayal of all Turks as bad, and his regret that Turkey's image was negatively affected by the film. Hayes also displayed affection for Turkey and Istanbul. Although the Interpol warrant for him had by then been set aside, he explained that while he wanted to return, he hesitated to do so out of concern that many Turks might blame him for the negative publicity the movie had generated.
The video was made available on YouTube. Hayes did finally return to Turkey on June 14, 2007, to attend the 2nd Istanbul Conference on Democracy and Global Security, organized by the Turkish National Police (TNP) and the Turkish Institute for Police Studies (TIPS), to amend the negative implications of his book. He held a press conference on June 15 and made an apology to the Turkish people.
In the audio interview below I caught up with Billy in 2013 in London, UK. The interview was recorded at the London Coliseum. The home of English National Opera where I worked for six years.
The interview was recorded for the London premiere of the Peter Schaufuss Midnight Express ballet. There was quite a lot of furor around this event due to the lead dancer Sergei walking out. But that's another story..