Billy Hayes interview, ‘Locked Up Abroad’ tells real Midnight Express tale

“In 1978 Hollywood made a film about my life, it was called Midnight Express and it told the story of my imprisonment and escape from a prison in Istanbul.  The story itself was based upon the book I had written.  In the book I could only say certain things for legal reasons.  The movie itself changed even the book to a point where not all of it is valid and true to my story.  Now I have a chance to tell my story.”Billy Hayes

One of National Geographic Channel’s most riveting series is back this summer on Wednesday June 30 at 10 PM.

“Locked Up Abroad” is reality tutorial for anyone with grandiose ideas about smuggling drugs or skirting customs and laws in countries outside the USA.

The Constitution does not follow you when you leave America. 

Best advice for travelers?  Attorney Dick Atkins, aka “the Houdini of fast escapes from foreign prisons” told Monsters and Critics at the National Geographic Channel screening at the Paley Center of “Locked and Abroad, June 24:  “Buy reasonably priced, good travel insurance whenever you go abroad, especially to countries that are lesser travelled.”

“And don’t do anything stupid!”

This series began as an adaptation of the show “Banged Up Abroad,” which aired in the United Kingdom in 2006.  Now it is a top-rated series for National Geographic Channel reborn as “Locked Up Abroad” – re-enactments of real people’s stories who fell into serious trouble while traveling. The catalyst for their legal and imprisonment problems include drug trafficking and kidnappings.

Each of the hour-long episodes begins with a subject setting the stage for his or her story by explaining the reasons for traveling to a certain country.  Footage of the location is shown. Then actors re-create the experience.

Some people make it, others don’t and wind up dying in foreign lands.

Now one of the most famous Americans caught for drugs abroad is finally able to tell his entire story.  The Oscar-winning 1978 film “Midnight Express” told the story of 23-year-old college student Billy Hayes ― his imprisonment for drug smuggling and his escape from a prison in Istanbul, Turkey.

For legal reasons, neither the film nor the book, authored by Hayes, told the whole truth. Now, Billy tells the full story of being sent to the infamous Turkish Sağmalcılar prison and eventually escaping.

After serving near five years and about to be set free, Billy was dealt a harsh blow as the Turkish courts decided he was a drug smuggler, not just a hapless tourist caught for possession, and upped his nearly-served sentence to life in prison.

The National Geographic “Locked Up Abroad: The Real Midnight Express” June 30 depicts a dramatic recreation of these events, as Billy, devastated by the curveball he is thrown, is determined to escape and risk death to do it.

His journey to freedom begins after being transferred to another prison located on an island, stealing a fisherman’s dinghy and heaving a skiff 17 miles through the rolling waves to the mainland. However, once he reaches the shore, Billy runs into a military checkpoint, where he is immediately arrested and held at gunpoint. His captors turn out to be Greek, historical enemies of the Turks, and Billy is deported back to America.

Today Billy Hayes’ youthful appearance, full head of hair, lithe physique and sharp mind belie his actual 63 years, which include the bad stretch where he was captured, beaten and imprisoned.

Hayes shared that 40 years of daily Yoga exercise (which he learned in prison) has been part of his maintenance to keep youthful.  It’s worked very well for him.

Monsters and Critics spoke to Billy Hayes about his Turkish nightmare that fueled the memoir and the movie, Midnight Express.

Monsters & Critics: Your episode was very hard to watch. You were very emotional in it, understandably. All these years after the fact, I’m sure the vividness of the whole experience is still there.
What made you want to do it again and relive it?

Billy Hayes: It was a chance actually to do it my way and tell the story in a way that I would have liked from the beginning. Which I wasn’t able to do!

To go from real life to a book to a film…there’s going to be changes, obviously through each medium.  I wasn’t even able to tell the full story in the book just for legal reasons when I first came back.

If you seen the episode you’ll know that I had done this three times prior before I got arrested, but I couldn’t say that when I first came home, and couldn’t write it in my book when I first came home.

Because it was 1975, and the advice from my lawyer was, ‘Look now, wait a second. You want to publicly admit that three times prior to getting arrested? You went to Turkey…smuggled some hash… brought it back into the United States and sold it. Is that correct?’

I said, ‘I guess so!’

He said, ‘Well let me ask you one more question then. Are you out of your f*cking mind!?’

So I had to not say that, and when I was in Istanbul the Turkish court just assumed, and I certainly didn’t dissuade them that this was the first time that I’d smuggled hash, and it wasn’t.

So I was able to tell the full story here.

My problem with the film Midnight Express is that it creates an overall impression!   I mean it’s brilliantly made, if it wasn’t such a powerful film they wouldn’t have got the affect that it did, but you don’t see any good Turks in the whole film, and it created this overall impression that Turkey is just this horrible place, and all Turks are horrible. That’s not true.
Either to the reality or of my experience.

I loved Istanbul. I still do. It’s a fascinating place! I got along great with the Turks. Until I got arrested. I mean I’m not a great fan of Turkish prison or of their legal system, but that could be any country in the world.

So from day one every interview I have done in the last 30 years I have said what I just said to you.   It’s just my little words don’t get heard over the images that are seen on the screen.

Film is such a powerful medium, and it created this overall impression, which was very strong. So here is a chance for me to tell it my way, and to balance the views of the audience.

Certainly it doesn’t create an overall impression like the film did about Turkey and the Turks, which was the one reason I wanted to tell the story again.

Monsters & Critics: You were really emotional when you talked about your mother’s reaction to you being imprisoned. Is it your hope that kids watching this will learn from your mistake?

Billy Hayes:  At the very least! This should be a cautionary tale. In the mid 80s I did a series of college lectures around the same subject, and first off I didn’t talk about it at all.

It was three years non-stop. Between the book and the film, and the Cannes Film Festival I was totally burned out.   I didn’t want to hear anything else about Billy Hayes and all this Midnight Express Bullshit!

So I went to a totally different place and after a few years. I got brought back to Marquette University. Where I’d almost graduated. I got to talk there, and there was a lecture agent in the audience, and he said, ‘You should do lectures.’

I said, ‘I’m an actor. I don’t do that.’

Pretty soon I was doing lectures. I did a hundred and three of them, and that was my message. That we get in front of every crowd and start the lecture like this, ‘If you’re this stupid…look what can happen to you.’
And I see all these heads nodding. That was my first message, and that’s the message here. Obviously if you’re this stupid look what can happen to you. So don’t be this stupid, and go smuggle drugs in a foreign country.

When we get into the whole subject matter of whether drugs should be legalized and all that. That’s a whole other kettle of fish. Of course they should, but I don’t think we have time or place to talk about that, and the imbalance it creates in our society.

Our over-crowded prisons and our corrupt legal system, and all the deaths and the violence because those drugs are so expensive. They’re not. They’re cheap, they’re plants!  They grow in the ground.

There expensive because we have made them illegal. The war on drugs is the most idiotic policy.

Richard Nixon… I despised Richard Nixon. He was the first person that really started it, and it’s still happening right now. There’s still thousands of Americans… I mean we have half of our prison population in jail for drug related crimes. That’s insane.

A twenty year-old kid gets arrested for pot, and they put him in prison. You think that’s going help him?  Trust me it won’t. The stuff he learns in jail is not going to make him a better citizen, and if he survives it at all. It’s at huge risk and cost to himself.

Monsters & Critics: What state is your residence in?

Billy Hayes:  California, been here 30 – years now.

Monsters & Critics: We have medical Marijuana cards. I think the dam’s been breached here.

Billy Hayes: There are some, but that’s another thing to be aware of. I mean geographic distinctions and legalities. The joint tucked behind your ear in California, You won’t even get arrested for in Santa Monica.

You go to Nevada. Nevada’s two years in prison. For a joint. Unless it’s changed recently. It still was recently. That’s two years of your life. Well, ignorance of the law does not help. People should be aware of what can happen to you.

Again drug education. We should make people aware. Let them find out everything about all the drugs and let them make their own decisions. Because they’re going to make them anyway. So educate them. Don’t put them in jail for it.

It corrupts our legal system. It corrupts our prisons. It creates all the violence that exists today. It’s insanity. We’re moving away from it, but it’s such a difficult thing to do. The morality. We still have all of these religious moral reasons why drugs are terrible.

Let’s talk about terrible drugs. How about alcohol?  How about tobacco? You want to talk about two bad drugs! Forget about Marijuana. Alcohol and Tobacco!  Billions of dollars is spent on advertising to make you and your kids smoke and drink. Where’s the problem there?

Monsters & Critics: I saw Midnight Express as a teenager. It was very impactful, and I’m now the mother of an 18 year-old and 25 year-old. Both of them have travelled extensively. What would you want people to take away the most from your experience. Other than the cautionary tale.

Billy Hayes: Obviously it is a cautionary tale. The bottom line for me is the same thing I had when I was doing the college lectures!   Which is do what you like, and know what you’re doing! Do whatever you like and know what you’re doing because you’ve got to take responsibility for your own actions.

That’s the bottom line. So know what you’re about.

For me. Not knowing what I was doing was not really taking responsibility for the fact that my actions affected the people around me that I loved. (Tears up for a moment) Wow, I can’t even say it. 40 years and I can barely talk about it!  The fact that my family suffered so much.

Every day while I was in jail. From my stupid actions. That tore my heart out!

So if you want a cautionary tale for your 18 year-old son, think about what it would do to you. If you had to deal with the fact that your sons in prison every day. It would be devastating on you. Well, if he knew that…the next time he was thinking of doing something stupid. That might stop him.

So if I have any messages at all for people. It’s think about that.  Think about what your actions are going to do and take responsibility for them.

Monsters & Critics: What was the time period from when life was normal? To the hell that you were in to when life was normal again.  How much time elapsed?

Billy Hayes: When will it be normal again? (Laughs)  I don’t know, and I don’t even know what normal is.

I’m being a little facetious. I was arrested in 1970. I got out in 1975. That was a pretty bizarre period for me to go from the Sixties, which I just loved. Sex, Drugs and Rock N’ Roll, Free Love and no AIDS. God I loved the Sixties, and life was so easy for me. So easy. 

Then it wasn’t easy anymore, and then I got out and everything flipped over, but the weird part pretty much started when I got out. Turkish prison was weird, but I came home. I stepped off the plane at Kennedy Airport. It was a press conference at the airport. They were over a hundred people asking me questions, ‘Billy, Billy. What’s it feel like to be home?’

‘I don’t know! I just got here. I haven’t seen my mother yet.’

That never stopped. That went on for three solid years. Right up until the Cannes Film Festival.

Between the coming home and doing the book. Doing the promotion for the book. Then having the movie, and doing the promotion for the movie. Then hitting the Cannes Film Festival. I did thousands of interviews. I don’t know that my life ever got normal, but luckily at the Cannes Film Festival of all places. I met the woman who is still my wife today.

She’s the best thing that ever happened to me. So if it cost me all that time to get to her, which is what I tell her all the time. She says, ‘Stop bullshitting me!’ but it’s the truth.

All of that got me to her. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

Monsters & Critics: That’s a nice story

Billy Hayes: It’s a true story. I mean I get kids saying, ‘How long you been married?’ and I’ve been married about 30 – years, and I always say the same thing. It’s the best thing I ever did. Not the easiest thing I have ever done, but certainly the best thing!

Monsters & Critics: How did you get approached for a book when you got back?

Billy Hayes: The Book. I’d just got out of jail, but there had been a lot of stuff in the press when I first got arrested, and I was in jail. Then my sentence got changed to Life. I was the first American to get a life sentence, which was reduced to 30 years.

All of that was in the press in New York. In the papers, and my dad had used press stuff to try and help me, and so when I did escape. The press was all over it. I mean literally.
As I said in the airport they had this conference on. I mean I wasn’t even home when the agents started calling. It was like an avalanche. I got home and whoosh…down the hill and this avalanche.
Again, it didn’t stop for about three years, and in the end I had to stop.

I had to stop doing anything to do with ‘Billy Hayes, Midnight Express’ and all that bullshit. Nothing, and I just became an actor.

Then after a little while I realized I had to bring all that back in because the whole world knew me as Billy Hayes the escaped convict, drug smuggler. So let’s make the most of it. Particularly if you’re doing theater.

Anyway to get people into the theater, ‘Come see the escaped convict, drug smuggler! Come on in.’   It’s like… well if it brought people in. ‘Gee he does do other things. He’s an actor, he’s a director…’ and I’ve written other stuff, but I’ll always be Billy Hayes locked up abroad, but here’s a chance for me to tell it in my own words. My own way.

Monsters and Critics: Light question. What were you hankering for when you got back to the states? After having eaten prison food in Turkey for years?

Billy Hayes: Cold apple sauce. I used to wake up dreaming in the middle of the night in a hot, sweaty prison thinking about cold apple sauce. It just drove me insane. A lot of other things, but that’s what I really wanted. Food, food. Cold Apple Sauce on a hot summer night, but what I wanted to do most was walk in a straight line for more than 34 paces… (points) because that’s where the wall was. You’d go back, you’d go back and back, round and round and around, but just to walk in a straight line.

Just to be alone. In prison you’re always lonely but you are never alone. With all those people around. In hell with the smell of all those people. That drove me crazy.

Monsters and Critics: If you could describe it now, what’s the smell of a Turkish prison?

Billy Hayes: Funky. Very, very funky. Holes in the floor for the toilet. You got 80 guys. You wash once a week with hot water. Every day they serve you beans. 80 guys locked in one room. Every day they served beans.

Monsters and Critics: That’s all they gave you. Beans?

Billy Hayes: No, but everyday that’s part of what they served. You could buy stuff. Essentially they did beans every day. Nobody washed. Once a week you’d get a bath.

So I learned to turn off my smell and turn off my hearing. I had to pretty much isolate both of them, but there were still certain smells that take me back. Bad smells. Nasty, funky toilet-y smells. They take me right back.


Wednesday, June 30 at 10pm ET/PT

Video “Locked Up Abroad: The Real Midnight Express” – Locked Up Abroad re-examines the life of Billy Hayes, and this time, all is revealed.

Video “Catching a Drug Smuggler” – Just mere steps from his flight, Billy is caught attempting to smuggle two kilos of hash out of Turkey.

Video “Posing as a Mental Patient” – Hayes fakes insanity in order to transfer to a mental hospital, only to find that the hospital is much worse than prison.

Video “Escape from an Island Prison” – In a prison surrounded by water, Billy steals out in the dead of night, jumps in a canoe, and rows hours to safety.

Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.