Don’t look now, but Billy Hayes is back in town.
The “Midnight Express” man left Los Angeles in 2014 and hit the road with his one man show for a time, then settled down in Sin City, where he’s been negotiating with various pot enterprises who want to market a “Billy Hayes” brand of high-end weed. Billy has become the poster guy for the booming industry there, as he has been smoking for 50 years and has no ill-effects to show for it. “On the contrary,” he says, “I’m the happiest and the healthiest person I know.”
Billy is the subject of a fascinating documentary by Sally Sussman, MIDNIGHT RETURN: Billy Hayes and Turkey, which is finishing up its run at the Laemmle Music Hall on Friday, and is an absolute must-see if you want to understand why Billy Hayes is such an iconic figure to those of us over 50, and also if you want to get all the juicy behind-the-scenes info about the making of the landmark film Midnight Express. This film – which would never get made today in the era of political correctness – boasted the collaboration of some very talented and large-ego’d men: David Puttnam, Alan Parker, Peter Guber and Oliver Stone. When you hear their recollections, it boggles the mind that the movie turned out as well as it did.
As a screenwriter myself, I was fascinated to hear about how much the Brits, Parker and Puttnam, hated Stone, even after they were in awe of his screenplay; and how shabbily Stone was treated throughout. Of course Oliver Stone got the last laugh, winning the Oscar and launching his career, which had basically been stalled to that point. Stone has some very interesting things to say about the reasons why he related so personally to Billy’s story, and how he feels about the film now. I was shocked to learn that the famous ending of Midnight Express was not in fact his creation… but enough. I won’t spoil the many other revelations. I will say only that Alan Parker’s comments deepened my respect for him as a film artist.
But the center of the story is Billy Hayes, who comes as a deceptively complicated figure – at times he’s straightforward and almost an everyman who loves his family and wants to make everyone proud of him, at other times he’s an adventurer, a daredevil and, well, “crazy,” as his brother and sister keep saying. Fate chose Billy to be an actor in a drama about American innocence caught in a web of foreign intrigue, and that story has proved to have staying power way beyond anything Billy himself ever expected. Much like the film of his life that became a cultural phenomenon for young Americans in the 1970s and ’80s, and which continues to exert enormous influence over those who’ve seen it, down to the present day.
Billy’s true-life escape from an Alcatraz-like Turkish island prison still boggles the minds of the Turkish authorities, a few of whom show up in the film still insisting that he must have had help from the CIA. The escape came after the Turkish court had changed Billy’s sentence from four years to 30 years, just as he was about to be released. (The film makes it clear that Billy was a pawn in Nixon’s war on drugs, and that Nixon was happy to have Billy’s freedom sacrificed to his law and order policies.) Given all this, there seems to be some justice in the terrible publicity that the country of Turkey reaped from Billy’s harrowing escape. But Billy himself was disturbed by the anti-Turk tenor of the film and the devestating effect this had on the Turkish tourism industry and on the Turkish people’s image in the world and self-image.
The central theme of the documentary is the return of Billy Hayes to Turkey in 2007, as he attempts to heal the wounds created by the Hollywood film made from his story. Over the objections of his lawyers and most of his friends (though not me), “crazy” Billy puts himself into the hands of a branch of the Turkish police (of all people) as he holds several news conferences, expressing his love and admiration for the Turkish people. Then he goes on a tour of his old haunts, including the prisons he spent time in. The municipal jail has been converted into a Four Seasons (no kidding!), but the infamous Birkakoy prison for criminally insane is still there. Though it’s closed down now, slowly rotting in the hot Turkish sun, they open it up for Billy in an unforgettable sequence, in which all the terrifying memories begin rushing back.
It’s an extraordinary experience, part of an extraordinary story which Billy himself has been trying to come to terms with ever his escape. He has gradually come to recognize the unique role he’s been chosen by history to play, and he has stopped trying to be an actor or director – I met him when he directed my play Break of Day about the young Vincent van Gogh, 18 years ago – and embraced his public persona, taking control of his own story.
Toward this end, Billy brings his one-man show, Riding The Midnight Express with Billy Hayes, to the Odyssey Theatre for four performances this weekend. The 73 minute show is followed by a Q&A with the audience and then Billy will sign his books for you, including his brilliant Letters from A Turkish Prison, which has not received the amount of attention that I believe it should. I’ve seen the show six or seven times in various iterations, and I highly recommend it. By embracing his “criminal” past, Billy has achieved a philosophy of self-acceptance which feels earned and authentic, and quite the opposite of all the self-help gurus out there who claim to have the answers on how to find your true self.