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‘Midnight Express' escapee will finally tell his story

Gene Triplett Published: June 29, 2010
BY GENE TRIPLETT

The Turkish government held Billy Hayes prisoner for five long years and Oliver Stone wrote an Oscar-winning screenplay about Hayes’ hellish ordeal and eventual escape, but the convicted drug smuggler thinks the Eurasian nation took a bad rap from the 1978 film “Midnight Express.”

Hayes will finally get a chance to set the record straight when he tells his own story beginning at 8 p.m. central time Wednesday on the season premiere of the National Geographic Channel’s “Locked Up Abroad.”

“I mean when you look at ‘Midnight Express’ the film, you don’t see any good Turks at all,” Hayes said in a recent interview at The Oklahoman. “It creates this overall impression that Turkey is this horrific place. Well, that’s not fair to Turkey. I love Istanbul. I actually spent quite a bit of time in Istanbul before I was arrested.”

The film is based on Hayes’ autobiography, but Hayes said even his own book doesn’t tell the full story of his imprisonment in 1970 and his escape in 1975.

“When I first got back, to write this book I had legal restrictions,” he said. “There were things I really couldn’t say, in terms of what happened in the past with my life, now that I was back in the United States, due to the legal jeopardy that it might put me in. So I had to be a little circumspect in what I said in the book.”

Hayes, 63, has been working as a writer, actor, producer and director in theater and film ever since. He’s married to Wendy West, daughter of Jackie West, who was for many years a

Billy Hayes
Billy Hayes

 driving force in Oklahoma City’s theater community before her death on May 4. Hayes was in Oklahoma City recently for Jackie West’s memorial service.

“One of the reasons that I think Jackie accepted me as a son-in-law so readily was because she loved theater,” the New York native said. “When she first met me I was an escaped convict drug smuggler, and a Yankee no less … I actually met Wendy, of all places, at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978 when ‘Midnight Express’ was premiered there.”

Hayes was introduced to his future wife by her cousin, Don Chastain, an Oklahoma City-born writer-actor who also had a film, “The Mafu Cage,” premiering at Cannes that year.

“The rest is history because we’ve been together ever since,” Hayes said.

She even stuck by him when the release of “Midnight Express” caused an angry Turkish government to issue a warrant for Hayes’ arrest through Interpol.

“There’s an attitude in the film, as much as I love what they did and I think (director) Alan Parker is a brilliant filmmaker, and (actor) Brad Davis put his heart and soul into the part (of Hayes), he was wonderful in that,” Hayes said. “(But) there’s an overall effect that wasn’t true to Turkey and it wasn’t true to my story.”

For example, he never bit the tongue out of the mouth of a trusty/informant, as was depicted in one of the film’s most horrific scenes, although Hayes admits he did attack and try to kill the man.

Further, the accidental killing of a sadistic guard who was preparing to rape him never happened. There was such a guard, an exception to the rule as the guards went, but he was gunned down in an Istanbul cafe by a former prisoner long before Hayes’ escape.

And in fact, Hayes never escaped from the infamous Sagmalcilar prison, but was eventually transferred to an island prison, where he ultimately escaped by sea in a rowboat in the middle of a storm.

“The escape (in the film) is so totally different than my real escape,” he said. “It was almost like an afterthought in the film.”

In the film, Hayes (Davis) is shown donning a guard’s uniform and simply walking out through the gates. Hayes says there was much more to it than that, involving a lot of running and hiding through Turkey, dying his hair different colors, and swimming a river into Greece.

“I had an escape that was made for Hollywood, and they didn’t use it in the film,” he said.

When Hayes asked Parker about it, he said the director responded, “‘What 45 minutes of this film do you want to cut out to put in your escape?’

“Now that I’ve become a filmmaker and understand the logistics of Hollywood, shooting on the water is so expensive,” Hayes said. “Shooting at night in a storm on the water is so expensive. Running through Turkey and all that was involved with my real escape would have jacked the budget of the film up quite a bit.”

But Hayes feels now is the time to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, beginning with his arrest for trying to smuggle two kilos of hashish out of Turkey. In addition to tonight’s “Locked Up Abroad” episode, he’s also preparing a one-man theatrical production in Los Angeles called “Riding the Midnight Express” as another means of telling his story his way.

And a means of making amends with Turkey.

“Go to Istanbul,” he said. “I love Istanbul. I got along great with the Turks till I got arrested.”


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