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.
Oliver Stone bares his soul about his triumphs and regrets
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.
Billy at 23 years old is arrested for trying to smuggle out 2 kilos of hashish
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 and his dad, shortly after Billy's escape
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 Turkish newspapers depicted Billy as endowed with superpowers
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.
Billy back at Birkakoy - "you are a broken machine."
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.
"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?"
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!