BURNING THE MIDNIGHT (EXPRESS) OIL WITH BILLY HAYES - a 4/20 Story


Stephen Fife

Stephen Fife

Writer, Non-Registered Critics


"Pot Hero" Billy Hayes, the other one. Photo Credit: Andrew Pielage/New Times

The brah hitting the pipe in this striking photo is a 40 year old Arizona cannabis activist named Billy Hayes, who - according to Phoenix New Times magazine - "opposes the monopolistic practices and tight restrictions in the marijuana industry."  To demonstrate his opposition, this Billy Hayes purposely committed a number of legal violations and then fought them in court.  But he lost, and a year ago he was sentenced to a two year prison sentence, which I suppose he's serving right now.  I don't know because my story is not about this Billy Hayes - it's about the other one, who was locked up in Turkey in 1970 for trying to smuggle out two kilos of hashish, then escaped in 1975 and wrote the book Midnight Express, which was made into a famous movie of the same name.  Does it mean anything that two men with the same name (that phrase again!) have played such a key role in the war on the War on Drugs?  Hmm.  Something to think about the next time you light up.

This Billy Hayes just turned 70 years old.  Yes, it's true - the Midnight Express guy just turned 70.

"I can't believe it," he tells me over the phone from Las Vegas, where he's currently living.  "How did this happen?"

How indeed.

For many of us like the Twisted Hipster who grew up in the late '60s and '70s, Billy Hayes is a touchstone character, an archetype.  He's a figure of the counterculture like the young Allen Ginsberg or John Lennon in his John & Yoko phase - well, okay,  no, maybe that's going too far.  He wasn't quite that famous or that archetypal.  And those guys were geniuses whose works will live on for ages.  And the Billy Hayes who is larger-than-life is not in fact the real Billy Hayes, who made a daring escape from from Imrali Prison on an island in Turkey, improvising his way to the Turkish border, then tiptoeing through a field of landmines and swimming across the Maritsa River to Greece.  It's the iconic character of Billy Hayes, played by the charismatic actor Brad Davis, whose saga of an adventurous young man's survival in a hostile world that kept trying to kill his spirit made a deep impression on young people of that time like myself, who were rebellious against or just dissatisfied with the social status quo, but felt imprisoned by the expectations of our parents or the vacuous realities of the square world.  For us, this larger-than-life Billy Hayes was a hero who managed to defeat these forces of conformity and/or punishment, who took on the worst that the world had to offer and still emerged unvanquished, his fighting spirit intact.

Brad Davis as Billy in Midnight Express

Except that was the Brad Davis-Billy Hayes, the star of a movie written by a crazy young writer named Oliver Stone, who managed to score an Oscar for his efforts.  That was the iconic character of "Billy Hayes," whose exploits have become part of popular culture - especially the scene where young Billy's girlfriend comes to visit him in prison and exposes her breasts to him, pushing them up against the cold glass that divides them, which has been lampooned by Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy, by Brian the Dog in The Family Guy, by Robins Williams countless times in his Act, and by many other comics and comedy shows.  And while that breast-exposing scene was 100% true (no kidding), many crucial scenes in the Hollywood movie were writer's embellishments, included for shock effect.  And that has been the struggle of Billy Hayes's life, post prison-escape - how to deal with the strange kind of fame that was conferred on him, a fame that has been both a blessing and a burden, and that he has done his best to come to terms with on his own terms.

Brad Davis and Billy Hayes, back in the day

How he has done that is too large a question to answer in the space of a Twisted Hipster column, but I will try to provide a broad outline.

I first met Billy in Hollywood in 1999, when he directed my play about the young Vincent van Gogh, Break of Day, at the Lillian Theater (now Sacred Fools).  It was a rocky rehearsal period for a number of reasons - my daughter was born, the producer was going through a nasty divorce, our designer had to construct a set that could be dismantled every Sunday and put back together every Wednesday (or was it Thursday?  I lost all track of time.).  But the production was a success, the run was extended, the play was published by Samuel French.  Billy proved to be a very good director - and then after the show was over, he became a very good friend.  In fact, from 2000-2014, he was probably my best friend.  Then he left Los Angeles for various reasons - after 36 years here - and our contact has been sporadic.

Billy as a mutant in a Roger Corman movie, 3 years after returning to the US

While he may have existed for me as a larger-than-life archetype for several years, that went away very soon after I met him.  Billy is a very straightforward, very emotionally grounded, person.  There's not a single moment when I've been around him that I felt he was posing or posturing or trying to live up to any idea of who he was supposed to be.  Without violating any confidences, I can say that he has three loves in his life: yoga, poker and weed.  And yes, his wife, Wendy.  As he tells everyone, Billy smokes weed and practices yoga every day, and he credits his constant good health and optimistic attitude to both.  He would have loved to play poker every day too, but that takes having money you can afford to lose, something that Billy doesn't always have.  Nevertheless, he supported himself for three years of the time I knew him by his poker winnings, something that this Twisted Hipster would never even be tempted to try.

Billy has spoken elsewhere about having had a male lover while he was in prison, a Frenchman who he became very close to, but he never talked about that with me.  He never really spoke to me either about the struggles he had re-acclimating himself to American society after five years in Turkish prisons, but I read about them in his excellent  book, Midnight Return, where he tries to recreate the challenge of going from five years of fear and incarceration in a foreign land to instant celebrity in his own country, the Hollywood spotlight, a famous figure on the biggest stage in the world.  But was it fame or was it infamy?  He was a convicted drug smuggler, not an innocent victim or a scapegoat.  And while there are plenty of people who crave that kind of notoriety, Billy doesn't and didn't.  He was deeply ashamed for all the pain he put his family through - that is something that we have often spoken about, and it still hurts him, his wounds are still raw. 

In fact, that's what make his book of Letters from a Turkish Prison so powerful, because he is so deeply tormented, so full of regrets, and yet he needs to find peace of mind, needs to keep himself from losing hope and falling into despair.  These Letters give the lie to any idea of Billy as some kind of lightweight.  They are remarkably insightful for a young man in his mid-20s, especially as the years roll by and nothing changes for him except the comings and goings of his fellow prisoners.  It is in these Letters that Billy emerges as a true Hero.  Not full of Oliver Stone mania, but full of hard-won wisdom that sustains him, especially after the Turkish courts change his sentence from four years to 30 years - precipitating his escape.

Somewhere around 2006, Billy started working on a one-man show about the real story behind Midnight Express - as opposed to the iconic Hollywood myth that Oliver Stone had created.  I think that at first he looked at it as a way to make some money doing what came naturally - telling personal anecdotes about the central story that had come to define his life anyway, that of his capture, incarceration and escape.  But at a certain point it became more than that, I believe, it became a way to take back his story, to redefine the story that defined him and thereby make it truly his own again.

As a close friend, I was of course required to attend the show several times.  The first incarnation received a disappointing review in the LA Weekly which was largely accurate (if somewhat unkind) regarding the way it was more like a lecture with slides than a personal account of what he went through.  Billy shut the show down, got a new production team, and came back with a thoroughly revamped show without any slides, just him and the audience.  The result was a 75 minute show that compressed a large story and an enormous amount of personal experience into something very concentrated.  More importantly, he was able to recapture that mythic element, that larger-than-life quality, but now in the service of something truthful and personal.

He wanted to set the record straight about what really happened - that he was captured on his fourth smuggling operation, not his first.  That he loved Istanbul, loved Turkey, and had entirely opposed the demonizing of the Turkish people and their country that had characterized Oliver Stone's script and Alan Parker's film.  He had not killed a guard (though another inmate had), and he had not made a speech in court cursing the Turks as "pigs."  In fact, what he had said was literally the opposite: "I believe you are making a terrible mistake, but I forgive you."

And now they have forgiven him, and the vendettas of the past have in fact been put to rest.  Billy was invited back to Turkey in 2007 to attend a Police Conference (of all things) and in 2014 he was given the honor of raising the Turkish flag on Wall Street as part of their Republic Day celebrations.  The Interpol warrant for his arrest has finally been done away with, and Billy is no longer The Most Hated Man in Turkey (a title he held for almost 30 years).  All of which is chronicled in a new documentary, MIDNIGHT RETURN: The Story of Billy Hayes and Turkey, which recently played at the Cannes Film Festival, marking Billy's return there, 39 years after Midnight Express.

 

When I speak with him now, Billy is preparing to leave for Beirut, where he will be performing his one-man show.  (It played for several weeks Off-Broadway and has made stops in London, Edinburgh, New Zealand and many other locations.)  He is full of plans, many of which I've been sworn not to talk about.

Billy and his wife Wendy

There is a Hollywood thing - but no, I can't describe it except to say that it may bring him back to Los Angeles for a brief stay.  ("I miss the ocean, and I miss friends like you," he says.)

There is also a pot and hashish thing.  "Get ready for 'Billy's Buds' and 'Midnight Express hashish', he tells me.  "We are negotiating with two different dispensaries, both of which want me to sponsor their product."  He says that this will not only bring him much-needed income, he will also get X amount of pot every month and X amount of hashish. "How much is "X"?" I ask him.  "Enough," he says.

I ask him if he's worried at all that Trump or Jeff Sessions will try to spoil his party and renew the Federal Drug war?

"Do you know how much money people are making from weed now?  How much the states are making?" he says.  "They're not going to mess with that.  Besides, nobody really cares anymore.  And the health benefits alone, there's no arguing with that.  That's why Big Pharma is so against it.  Weed is so much better for you than pills, and much less expensive."

Billy touts himself as the best advertisement for his product.  "I've smoked pot every day for the last 50 years," he says, "and I'm the healthiest person I know.  Which sounds like a slogan, I know, but it's the absolute truth.  Then again, I like to get high, but I don't like to get stoned.  I think the problems, if any, arise when you get stoned too much."

Billy Hayes and the Twisted Hipster

Which seems like a good place to stop and wish everyone a Happy and Hassle-free 4/20 day!

Stephen Fife
Steve is a 5-tool writer (plays, screenplays, novels, poetry, journalism) who has had 11 books published, 10 plays produced, and has written for the New York Times “Arts & Leisure”, Village Voice, New Republic, and many others. He is one of the few people on the planet who can lay claim to spending time with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sandy Meisner, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, as well as so many other extraordinary people who refused to color inside the lines. He is always on the lookout for the original and the incisive.