'Midnight Express' tale hits the stage

In "Riding the Midnight Express," Billy Hayes, who

In "Riding the Midnight Express," Billy Hayes, who grew up in North Babylon, retells the story of his imprisonment in Turkey and subsequent escape. The show, held at St. Luke's Theatre in Manhattan, began this month and runs through March 23, 2014. (Credit: Bruce Gilbert)

Billy Hayes figured that after nearly four decades, people were tired of hearing him talk Turkey. Following his bestselling memoir "Midnight Express" and the Oscar-winning movie based on it, he didn't think anyone could still be interested in his tangled tale from the 1970s.

Hayes was a college student from North Babylon, studying journalism at Marquette University in Milwaukee, when he decided to go abroad and experience life so he could write about it.

"Surprise, surprise. Not exactly the direction I wanted to go," says Hayes, 66, referring to his arrest in Istanbul for trying to smuggle more than 4 pounds of hashish out of the country, his five harrowing years in Turkish prisons and his escape by sea.

After strong audience reaction to a 2010 episode of the National Geographic Channel series "Locked Up Abroad," which reenacted Hayes' prison break, he discovered younger generations unfamiliar with his story wanted to know more. Now the saga is getting new life in a 70-minute one-man show called "Riding the Midnight Express With Billy Hayes," in which he sits on a stool and recounts his experiences in Turkey.

The show, which is followed by an audience Q&A, opened earlier this month at St. Luke's Theatre in Manhattan and runs through March 23 (see box). It comes on the heels of last spring's reissue by Curly Brains Press of Hayes' book, written with William Hoffer, as well as the release of "Midnight Express Return" and "The Midnight Express Letters," penned by Hayes from prison to his family, a girlfriend and hometown pals.

"I'm Irish, and the show is in the Irish storyteller tradition, like being around the campfire and talking," says Hayes. "As my mom would say to me, 'You standing around talking about yourself -- you're good at that.' "

 

Discovering drugs

Hayes' introduction into drug culture came while at Marquette in 1967. "I started smoking weed and doing mushrooms and other psychedelics," he says.

His dealings with drugs got into high gear after a college buddy returned from Istanbul with 2 kilos (4.4 pounds) of hashish that he'd gotten past customs by hiding it in his money belt, he says. Hayes, who'd always been fascinated by Istanbul, made his first trip there in April 1969, where he acquired 2 kilos of hash and smuggled it through customs by hiding it in a plaster cast on his body. He became a big man on campus, making out well financially (and with the girls) by selling his stash. He cleared customs with concealed hash on two more visits to Istanbul. On trip No. 4, however, he was caught on his way back to the United States and taken by authorities to a room at the Istanbul airport, where the hashish he had taped to his body was ripped from under his arms and his waist. It was also in that room where he wrote to let his parents know what happened.

"The first time I had to write home to my folks was probably one of the hardest things I've ever done," he says. "It was the whole beginning of the realization that I not only screwed up my own life but it had also fallen on my parents as well."

After the State Department notified Hayes' parents, they called his younger brother at college in Providence. "I immediately came home and saw my parents were really upset, to say the least," says Bob Hayes, 63, a retired insurance company officer who lives in West Islip. "They were very unaware of the whole drug culture. They didn't even know what hashish was."

On his first night in prison, Hayes was led into a cell, he says, bare save for a skinny mattress on a wood plank. The guards were smoking hashish. He also learned prison etiquette in Turkey -- inmates shower in their underwear.

Hayes says that practicing yoga was the one thing that kept him mentally and physically healthy while in prison. In the show, he delivers a line that reveals its significance: "Yoga keeps me reasonably sane, and I'll take reasonably sane any day."

Hayes' dad, William Hayes Sr., who died four years ago, "did yeoman's work" trying to arrange for his son's freedom, but to no avail. After four years, Hayes' sentence was upped to life because his offense was changed from drug possession to smuggling. (A judge then lowered the sentence to 30 years.)

The extended sentence was key to his escape -- he was now eligible to be transferred to another prison. Hayes says he asked to be moved to Imrali Island in the Sea of Marmara, where he knew there had been more successful breakouts than at other prisons. On Oct. 2, 1975, he escaped at night by rowboat to Bandirma, in northwestern Turkey. He blended in with locals and eventually headed west to Thessaloniki, Greece, where he was detained for 12 days.

From there, he was deported "for being a bad influence upon the youth of Greece" and put on a plane to Amsterdam before coming back to the United States.

He arrived home on a Friday and by Monday was approached by publishers to write his adventures. "Midnight Express" became a critical and commercial success. Hayes was surprised when his international criminal defense lawyer, Michael Griffith of Amagansett, suggested that Hayes talk to high schoolers about what he'd been through.

"My first thought was, 'You want me?' But what I realized was that I had a message for them, which was learn from my example," he says. "And I liked the energy of talking to a live audience." His experiences talking to high schoolers and having an audience led him to study acting at HB Studios in Manhattan, and he has worked steadily as an actor and director onstage on the West Coast.

 

Going Hollywood

The success of his book attracted interest from Hollywood, with Columbia Pictures snapping up the rights. Hayes got a $35,000 advance, an additional $90,000 when filming started and a percentage of the profits.

During his show, the most frequently asked audience question is: What are the differences between his book and the movie? Hayes says there were significant changes. "When I sold the book to Columbia, they had the right to do whatever they wanted to it," he explains.

Though Hayes says he admires the professionalism of director Alan Parker and the craftsmanship that went into making the film, he was baffled by many of the changes his story took from page to screen. In the shower scene, for example, actor Brad Davis, who plays Hayes, resists the sexual advances of a fellow prisoner. In both the book and his play, Hayes not only gave in, but continued the relationship until the other man's release. "Brad wanted to at least let the steam rise and leave a question in the shower scene," Hayes says. Producers, however, ruled against it.

Likewise, Hayes' prison escape -- which shows him punching and killing a guard, stealing his keys and slipping out the door -- is strictly out of Oscar-winning screenwriter Oliver Stone's imagination. "I always say if it was that easy, it wouldn't have taken me five years to do it," Hayes says.

Hayes' real great escape in a rowboat was never even hinted at in the movie. Parker reasoned that depicting the event as it happened would have added 45 minutes to the movie. "His explanation was the audience has had enough. We want to get them out of the bloody theater," Hayes says. "But with that escape, I got my self-esteem back. I got myself into prison and I got myself out, and I wanted to see that rowboat. I loved that rowboat."

The biggest diversion from reality involved the courtroom scene, when "Billy" delivers a profanity-laced tirade against the Turkish government after his sentence is expanded to life. "What I actually said was, 'I've been in jail for more than three years now. Laws change from one country to another, from one time period to another, and all I can do is forgive you,' " Hayes says. "That scene in that movie so incensed the Turkish government that they issued an Interpol warrant for my arrest." The warrant expired in 2002.

The movie became a box-office hit and enhanced Hayes' name recognition. When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1978, Hayes caught the eye of Wendy Lee West, a young woman from Oklahoma, who was introduced to him by her cousin, actor Don Chastain. "It was lust at first sight," she says. The two have been happily married since 1980. Wendy, 59, is associate producer of Hayes' one-man show.

Hayes now lives in California, where the only drug he says he uses is marijuana -- but never when he comes to New York, where he frequently returns to visit his family on Long Island. His sister, Peg Turri, lives in West Islip, and his 90-year-old mom, Dorothy, who suffered a stroke a few years ago, lives at Babylon Beach House, an assisted-living facility.

The movie's portrayal of Turks angered many in that country for years, yet in 2007, Hayes was invited back to Istanbul to be the keynote speaker at an international security conference on crime injustices. "At first I thought this was some kind of scam," says Griffith, Hayes' attorney. "Billy told me there had been negotiations with the Turkish consulate in Los Angeles. They assured him this was on the up-and-up. They paid for a business-class airline ticket and put him up in a hotel." At a news conference there, Hayes apologized to the Turkish people.

Though he's been acting for more than three decades, it's as Billy Hayes of "Midnight Express" notoriety that he'll likely be best known. At the same time, Hayes doesn't discount how fortunate he is.

"I am lucky, lucky, lucky," he says, "and so thankful and grateful for every magical moment."

 

 

READ THE BOOKS, SEE THE PLAY

Both on the page and on the stage, Billy Hayes has a compelling story to tell.

THE BOOKS "Midnight Express," "Midnight Express Return" and "The Midnight Express Letters" (Curly Brains Press)

INFO $15.99 each; amazon.com

THE SHOW "Riding the Midnight Express With Billy Hayes"

WHEN | WHERE Through March 23 at the St. Luke's Theatre, 308 W. 46th St., Manhattan; 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, 5 p.m. Friday and Sunday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

INFO $39.50-$66.50; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com.

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