Billy Hayes is touring a one-man show to debunk pop culture myths of “Midnight Express”

By Christina Campodonico

On Oct. 2, 1975, 28-year-old Billy Hayes — an American student imprisoned in Turkey for attempting to smuggle two kilos of hashish out the country five years earlier — escaped from the island prison of İmralı and rowed himself to salvation.

Under the cover of night he commandeered a rowboat, navigated it to the Turkish mainland in the middle of a storm, spent three days on the run and ultimately crossed the Maritsa River to freedom in Greece.

“I was out. I was free,” says Hayes, now 70 and living in Las Vegas. “But it was a bizarre reentry into life.”

The writer and actor may have broken free from his Turkish prison 42 years ago, but he hasn’t been able to escape retelling his incredible story ever since.

“When I got home, I literally stepped off the plane at Kennedy and there were 100 reporters at the airport asking questions. It never stopped,” recalls Hayes.

He’s still astonished by the fascination that his story holds, especially for people at parties.

“They get you stoned and you end up telling all these silly stories about prison,” he says.

The public’s continued curiosity about Billy Hayes is due in large part to the sensational 1978 Alan Parker film “Midnight Express” that’s based — with a very high degree of cinematic license, Hayes notes — on his 1977 memoir about his experiences in Turkey.

“The story has been told in so many different iterations, from my book to the movie,” says Hayes, who is currently developing an audio version of his memoir and is the subject of a newly released documentary titled “Midnight Return,” about the making of “Midnight Express” and Hayes’ coming to terms with Turkey.

“There was a ‘Midnight Express’ ballet of all things done in London,” continues Hayes, “which actually — it stunned me.”

What stunned him more — and still stings him — is his portrayal in the Parker-directed and Oliver Stone-scripted cult film and their depiction of the Turkish people.

“In the movie Oliver Stone had me speaking to the Turkish court: ‘You’re a nation of pigs. I f**k you all. I f**k your sons. I f**k your daughters.’ Ooof!,” says Hayes. “What I really said is, ‘Laws change from country to country, time to time, and after more than three-and-a-half years in your prison, if you’re going to send me to more prison I can’t agree with you. All I can do is forgive you.’”

“The book was not the diatribe against Turkey that the movie was,” continues Hayes. “My problem with the movie ‘Midnight Express’ — brilliant as it is … you don’t see a single good Turk, and it creates an impression that this is a horrible country and these are terrible people, which is not true. It’s not valid to my experience.”

ABOVE: Billy Hayes (second to left) with his prison friends in the 1970s
BELOW: Hayes (white tuxedo) attends the 1978 Cannes Film Festival

Hayes also didn’t kill a Turkish prison guard as the movie dramatizes, which is why he is set on debunking the pop culture myths of “Midnight Express” with his own one-man show “Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes,” now playing for a limited engagement at the Odyssey Theater this weekend.

“Part of what we do in the show is talk about the differences between the book and the film, or why this happened, or why that happened,” says Hayes. “And we have a Q&A. I don’t even leave the stage. We finish up and the lights go up and a little clapping— ‘thank you, thank you’ — and then, ‘Any questions?’”

It’s not only a chance for Hayes to set the record straight, but also connect with the audience.

“They stay, they talk, ask questions, and that’s why I do theater. I love that connection with an audience,” he says.

After all these years, he still hasn’t gotten tired of telling his life-changing story.

“It’s really bizarre, this whole experience. My whole life is really [bifurcated] before and after getting arrested,” says Hayes. “Prison was the worst and the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes” plays at 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday (July 28, 29 and 30) at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. $25. Call (310) 477-2055, ext. 2, or visit odysseytheatre.com.

Catch a screening of “Midnight Return: The Story of Billy Hayes and Turkey” on Thursday (July 27) at Laemmle Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Visit laemmle.com for showtimes.

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