On Wednesday, June 30, a new season of “Locked Up Abroad” will debut on the National Geographic Channel. The series — which often features gripping accounts of Americans held in foreign jails — is returning with the untold tale of one of the most famous American prisoners ever, Billy Hayes.
In 1970, Hayes was arrested while attempting to smuggle Hash out of Turkey and sentenced to four years in jail. After his sentence was shifted into a life term only weeks away from his release, Hayes planned and successfully executed his escape from prison. Following his return to America, Hayes wrote a book about his experiences called “Midnight Express;” which was later adapted into a movie by director Alan Parker and screenwriter Oliver Stone with Brad Davis portraying Hayes on the big screen.
However, Hayes has maintained for years that several details from the movie were not an accurate description of his escape. In the season premiere of “Locked Up Abroad,” Hayes offers a first person account of “The Real Midnight Express,” including new details never-before-revealed about his escape and his previous activity in Turkey.
Crave Online recently had the opportunity to speak with Hayes about his story, along with some of his future plans beyond the “Midnight Express.”
Crave Online: Can you tell us why you decided to come forward with this part of the story after all of these years?
Billy Hayes: Because National Geographic gave me the opportunity to do it. To actually tell my story, which I certainly wasn’t able to do when I first got home.
Crave Online: Which aspects of the “Midnight Express” film did you find objectionable?
Billy Hayes: Not so much even objectionable, just that they had to make changes to my story to tell their story. And as a filmmaker, I understand why they would do that. The biggest problem I had with the film is the fact that you don’t see any good Turks at all in the movie. It creates an overall impression that Turkey is this terrible place and Turks are a terrible people. Which is not valid or true, both to my own experience and to reality. I actually loved Istanbul. I got along great with the Turks until I was arrested.
I don’t like Turkish prisons and I certainly don’t like the Turkish legal system. But you know, you could fill in the blank with any country in the world and you’re not going to like their prison. And if you get arrested, you’re not going to like their legal system. So, my problem with the film is that it created this overall impression that all Turks are like that; even though I have said in every interview I have done over the last thirty years — just what I’m telling you now — that that’s not true. My little words get lost up against the images on the screen because Alan Parker, Brad Davis and the rest made an incredibly powerful film.
Things like the courtroom scene, after the sentencing where they’ve got me (or Brad) saying “This is a nation of pigs and I f*** you all. And I f*** your mothers.” The Turks hated that scene and rightfully so. What I actually said (which is in the Turkish records and in my book) was something about “You know, I’ve been in your jail for four years now. And if you’re going to send me to more prison, I can’t agree with you. All I can do is forgive you.” That is what I said. That’s the diametric opposite of what was said in the film.
Changes like that bothered me. The fact that the escape in the movie is like an afterthought. He kills the guard, which I didn’t do. I didn’t have too much of a problem with the guard’s portrayal because he was a brute and he was a sadist. Most guards were not like that, this guy was. This guy was actually shot by a fellow prisoner, who he had a beaten a year or two earlier. This prisoner shot him outside of the prison one morning while he was sitting and drinking his tea. The prisoner shot him eight times because he had disgraced this prisoner’s family while he was beating him. But I didn’t kill the guard and I actually escaped in a very different way than was shown in the film.
Crave Online: What was the day-to-day life like in Turkish prison? And how does that compare with American prisons?
Billy Hayes: The only difference that I can really say is that American jails are really structured. You wake up at 7am, piss at 7:05, eat at 7:15am… Turkish jails are not like that. They pretty much lock you in and close you in. And everything works on its own schedule, for the most part. Which I liked and I’m thrilled that I didn’t have to be in a really structured prison like an American jail.
Crave Online: How did you escape?
Billy Hayes: I got transferred to an island prison and I escaped off the island in a rowboat in a storm one night. And I spent three days running through Turkey and dying my hair. I didn’t know it at the time, but I found out afterwards that I crossed a minefield at the Turkish/Greek boarder and then swam the Maritsa river over to the other side, which was Greece and ultimately freedom. When the whole film thing came about I said, “I know they’ll do the escape. I don’t know what else they’ll change, [but] it’s made for Hollywood.” And they didn’t do it! Which stunned me when I first saw the film.
In fact I saw it in a little screening room in New York, all by myself. I could barely breath at the end of the movie. And then Alan Parker said “Well Billy, what do you think?” I said “I loved the film, but I miss my row boat. What happened to the escape?” He said “what forty-five minutes of this film do you want to cut out to put in your escape? They’d had enough, get the audience out of the bloody theater.” And he may be right in that respect.
But personally, I was such an idiot. I got myself busted and I put myself and my family and my friends through all of this grief. But then I actually got myself out. Literally holding my own fate in my hands as I was rowing away and I would have liked that in the film. That would have been good for me, personally. I understood why they didn’t have it in.
Crave Online: Where did you get the row boat from?
Billy Hayes: The prison island I was on — 17 miles off the mainland — wooden boats would come from the mainland with produce with [smaller boats] tied behind them. These boats were not allowed to spend the night in the harbor because it’s a prison island. Except as I noticed, the first time the seas were so rough and a storm was coming that the boats anchored. And they spent the night in our harbor. Each of them had a [smaller boat] behind them.
That was my plan. I was big on plans. My first plan was to smuggle the hash and then my plan was to get a rowboat and row to the mainland. I wasn’t worried about swimming out to the boat, I was a life-guard and a surfer. But I needed to get to the mainland and then make my way back into Istanbul where I had a friend — who had been in prison for a couple of years — who had become a Muslim, spoke terrific Turkish and he owed me a really big favor for something that happened in jail. He was working as a manager of a hotel. I figured once I got to him, he’d hide me out in the basement for a week, we’d get a false passport, it would blow over and I’d go out of the country. But when I got to the hotel, they said “Oh, Wolfie! You just missed him. He left yesterday for Afghanistan.”
That was the end of my plan. Everything else was improvised from there. It took me a few more days and I dyed my hair. Eventually, I swam the river into Greece.
Crave Online: Were they looking for you at that point?
Billy Hayes: They were looking for me once the sun came up. I had gotten past the night bed check, so I knew that once the sun came up, they’d start on the morning bed check and they’d discover that I was missing. Then they’d have to look for me around the island. Again, this was 1975, they wasn’t even e-mail back then. It took a while. But once the sun came up, I knew the alarm was going to go off. At that point, I knew the clock was ticking.
Crave Online: How did the American embassy respond when you were in Greece?
Billy Hayes: They came to me, because I was arrested after I swam the river. I ran into some border guards and I was kept in a little room in the woods because it’s really a restricted military zone. The Turks and the Greeks have been enemies for thousands of years and here I come wondering off into a military zone. The American consul was contacted and came out to visit me in this little jail I was in. He made the arrangements with the Greeks. I was essentially deported as “a bad influence upon the youth of Greece.” Which was the nicest thing the Greeks could have done and in truth it was the charge they had against Socrates. I didn’t have to drink any Hemlock, which was nice!
I knew the Greeks would never send me back to Turkey. Not for hash. If I killed someone, that’s different. That was also one of the considerations I had in escaping. “Do you buy a gun or not buy a gun?” If you’ve got money, you can buy anything in jail. And I had some money smuggled in by my dad. But if I had a gun and somebody pointed a gun at me, I’m going to try to shoot them first. And then where am I going to go? I wouldn’t be safe anywhere. Moral and karmic implications of killing another human being aside, I’d have to live in Paraguay for the rest of my life.
Crave Online: You came back to Turkey years later.
Billy Hayes: Two years ago, I got to go back.
Crave Online: I was wondering about that. How did you know they weren’t going to just put you back in prison?
Billy Hayes: It’s interesting, because when this whole thing was coming about, all of my New York friends in particular said “Have you heard about ‘hey come to Yankee Stadium, and claim your prize!’ And all of those idiots get arrested because they have outstanding traffic tickets.” But the bottom line is that everyone — people or countries — do what’s in their best interest. And the best interest of Turkey was to not have any more “Billy Hayes ‘Midnight Express’ bad BS” against them. The worst thing that could happen to them is that I go back there and have something [bad] happen.
In fact, the Turks were more concerned about me — my own physical safety — because the film was so derogatory against Turkey and the Turks. It destroyed the tourist industry for years and created this overall impression in the world — that they’re still dealing with — which was “Oh my God, Turkey, ‘Midnight Express.’ We don’t want to go there.” And the Turks who brought me back were actually very worried about my safety. So they actually took very good care of me.
There was an international conference of 1,000 police officers from 85 countries in Istanbul meeting to talk about international police and global security. And these police had seen a Youtube video I did in 1997 where a Turk who I met at the Cannes Film Festival said that “I heard that you like Turkey.” And I said just what I’m telling you now. That “I like Turkey, I wish they’d shown some good Turks.”
He said “this will be on television tomorrow.” And eventually it was! It’s on Youtube now and it’s like a 14 minute interview. These Turkish police saw this and contacted me. They said “If you will come to Istanbul for this global conference, we’d like you to say what you’ve been saying.” I’d always wanted to go back. I loved Istanbul. I wanted to go back and heal the breach because I was the most hated man in Turkey. I just didn’t want that. So I thought this would be a chance for me to go back to complete the circle and heal the breach between us.
So, it was a little weird. But it turned out to be a very good thing. It was in all of the Turkish newspapers and on Turkish TV and it made a lot of European news. I loved it. I spent four days in Istanbul and I was amazed. Turkey 30 years ago was the poor man of Europe. They are now one of the economic powerhouses of the last ten years. The old part of Istanbul is the same. The new part has a skyline that dwarfs New York. Turkey is doing very well these days.
Crave Online: You’re a filmmaker now. Was this something you were doing before you were arrested?
Billy Hayes: No, I was a writer before I was arrested. It was one of the reasons I went out on to the road, to experience life before I could write about it. Surprise, surprise, I experienced more than I planned for. I was writing before I got arrested and I was writing in jail — I have a book of letters that will hopefully get published here — and I became an actor when I got out. I’m still acting and I still direct a lot of theater, which I love to do but you can’t make any money in theater. You have to do stuff in-between.
Crave Online: What else have you worked on besides theater?
Billy Hayes: I did a film about ten years ago that I directed. I’ve got two books that are sitting with my agent which will hopefully get published soon. One of the reasons I was happy about “Locked Up Abroad” is that it will raise my profile to the point where hopefully these books can get published. One of them is “Letters from a Turkish Prison” — all the letters I wrote home to people over five years — they kept and gave back to me when I was writing “The Midnight Express.” I put them in boxes in the attic and never looked at them again until a few years ago — through a real fluke — my lawyer got to look at the letters and pretty much insisted I put them all down and annotate them.
I didn’t want to do it and I thought “Who cares about letters from forty years ago?” I certainly didn’t, but my lawyer is always right. He’s a real smart guy and it turns out that there was a very interesting arc in these letters. It’s terribly embarrassing and humbling in some respects to read about what you thought about life at 23 when you’re 60.
Crave Online: How old are you?
Billy Hayes: I’m 63.
Crave Online: I would have guessed you were in your early to mid-fifties.
Billy Hayes: I got lucky. Before I got arrested, I discovered yoga. And I’ve literally done yoga everyday for forty years. It’s the only thing that saved me in jail, physically and emotionally. And in Hollywood. Emotionally, you have to be really tough to be in this business, Yoga just helps keep me balanced everyday. It helps. I’ve been here in Hollywood for thirty years. My wife and I live back in New York and go back and forth,
Crave Online: Did you know your wife when you were in prison?
Billy Hayes: No, luckily I didn’t… I knew a lot of women, but nobody in particular or special. Which was great because that’s one of the harder parts of jail for guys who have wives or families. It was hard enough for me to be dealing with the fact that my parents and my family was suffering, which was by far the worst part of prison for me. But guys who have wives or kids, that’s so hard to be missing them.
But I met my wife at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978 when “Midnight Express” premiered there. Of all places, at the height of the hip and hypocrisy of Cannes, I met the woman who is still my wife today thirty years later.
Crave Online: What would your advice be to any Americans who get locked up abroad?
Billy Hayes: First off, don’t get locked up abroad. That’s my first piece of advice. I did a whole bunch of college lectures in the ’80s and that was my answer. I would start each lecture like this “If you’re this stupid, this is what can happen to you.” And I saw a lot of college heads nodding. At the very least this should be a cautionary tale for anybody who sees it.
If you do happen to get locked up… invariably I get e-mails and calls when people get locked up. I always tell them to do Yoga, I try to send them Yoga books because I know that it saved me. Very few really follow up, but you could not have anything better.
Crave Online: Do you have anything else coming up?
Billy Hayes: I’m doing a one-man show that’s going to open here in September or October in and around the [“Midnight Express”] subject matter.
Crave Online: Do you have any closing thoughts?
Billy Hayes: Tape it under your arms, they’ll never search you there! [laughs]