By his own admission, Billy Hayes has been “telling the same bullshit story” for 40 years. But it’s quite a story, and he tells it well, so we’ll forgive him, even if it is a bit bizarre to see his spoken-word show, Riding the Midnight Express, on the program at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, because a bundle of laughs is not exactly how you’d describe the Billy Hayes story.
“It’s kind of an offering to people,” says the 68-year-old American, his fit and wiry frame the result, he insists, of a daily regimen of yoga and hashish. “Everyone’s been down and out, depressed. It’s just that my story is a little more compact, and dramatic.”
Hayes’ tale became famous through the 1978 film Midnight Express. Written by Oliver Stone and directed by Alan Parker, the movie starred Brad Davis as a young American caught in Turkey in 1970 with two kilograms of hash strapped to his body as he attempted to board a plane home (the police were actually looking for bombs, as the PLO had just initiated the first wave of terrorist attacks on passenger flights).
The film was based on Hayes’ memoir of his time in a Turkish prison, during which he was beaten, had a mental breakdown, and saw his sentence increased from four years to life just as his original term was nearing its end. After five years, he made a dash for freedom – and, as it happened, a fair degree of fame.
“Most guys coming out of jail, it’s a tough road,” he says. “‘Previous employment?’ ‘Convict.’ That doesn’t get you a lot of work. So you don’t usually tell people, but I never had that choice. Everybody in the world knew I was an escaped convict drug smuggler. But it paid off in a lot of ways.”
Are you suggesting this as a career path, then?
“Sure,” he says. “I suggest you get busted, go to jail, escape and write a book. The rest is gravy.”
It was, he says more seriously, the “best and worst thing that ever happened to me”. The worst of it was that he felt as if he’d consigned his own family to five years in prison (though his brother has thanked him for setting such a low bar that “unless we kill someone on television, we’re golden”).
The upside, he insists, is pretty much everything else.
“I needed to go to jail,” Hayes says, rather shockingly. “I learned who I was. I grew up.”
He has given a lot of talks to high school and college students, and his key advice is this: “Do what you like – and know what you’re doing. Take responsibility for your actions because you have to live with the consequences.”
A passionate advocate of drug legalisation, Hayes has no sense of guilt about his exploits. “I was smuggling drugs. I’m from the ’60s, I don’t think people should be arrested for it. Don’t put people in jail – teach your kids about it.”
In the film, as in his book, he gets caught at his first attempt at smuggling. In reality, it was his fourth trip. “I don’t get any credit for my successful trips,” he says, with mock grievance. When he told his lawyer he planned to write about the other trips, he says the lawyer had just one question: “Are you out of your f—ing mind?”
There are a couple of untruths in the film that really bother him, though. He didn’t walk out the front door of the jail, he crept out and rowed to safety. He never killed that guard (though someone else did). And he certainly didn’t curse out the judge who gave him the bad news about his new and improved (that is, longer) sentence – a scene that, he claims, was responsible for a 95 per cent downturn in tourism to Turkey and made him the most hated man in the land.
“This is Oliver Stone,” he says. “I love Oliver but he was an angry young man and I think that came into the script.
“Oliver had me saying, ‘You’re a nation of pigs, I f— your sons, I f— your daughters’. I didn’t say that – I said, ‘I forgive you’. But they heard Oliver’s words.”
Billy Hayes performs Riding the Midnight Express at the Kelvin Club, Tues-Sun until April 12. Details: comedyfestival.com.au
The story Billy Hayes: Convicted drug smuggler tells the true story behind Midnight Express first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.