The Unbelievable (True) Story of the World’s Most Infamous Hash Smuggler

Ex-hippie Billy Hayes was busted for smuggling hash and thrown in a terrifying Turkish prison. He opens up about the bogus Midnight Express, Oliver Stone on blow, and his riveting one-man show.

Jasmine Hirst

“There are various iterations of my life out there,” says Billy Hayes, digging into his Eggs Benedict at a Manhattan diner. “People who know me from college, it’s one thing. If they read my book, Midnight Express, it’s something else. If they saw the movie, it’s really something else. The show helps bring all that together—and from a 67-year-old’s perspective.”

Most pop culture connoisseurs know him as the tortured protagonist of Midnight Express, the Alan Parker-directed and Oliver Stone-scripted saga of an American tourist who’s caught trying to traffic four kilos of hash out of Turkey in 1970 and sentenced to four years and two months in dicey Sağmalcılar Prison—which is later extended to 30 years.

In Parker’s film, Hayes, played by the stunning Brad Davis, spews racial epithets at Turkish magistrates (“And I fuck your sons and daughters because they’re pigs! You’re a pig! You’re all pigs!”) and escapes by impaling his sadistic prison guard’s head on a coat hook. The xenophobic film caused a stir in Turkey, where tourism plummeted 95 percent upon the movie’s release and Hayes was branded persona non grata.

“I said in the courtroom, ‘All I can do is forgive you,’ and in the movie, he calls them ‘a nation of pigs’ and says, ‘I fuck your sons and daughters,’” Hayes confesses, shaking his head at me. “That’s the reason why people hated Turkey after this, because they’re screaming with the protagonist. But that was Oliver expunging all this anger he had from not being able to get Platoon made yet, which was his baby. Oliver’s since apologized for the ‘excesses’ in the script, but the damage was already done.”

As a cultural corrective, Hayes is currently touring in a one-man show titled Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes. The New York Times called it “engrossing” and “stirring,” and they’re not wrong. Over 80 minutes, the raconteur shocks and awes with his so-crazy-it-must-be-true tale, which stands in stark contrast to the grim film.

The true story was as follows. Hayes wasn’t a green American nabbed on his first drug smuggling attempt, but a small-time runner who’d made three trips prior to getting nabbed—in April 1969, October 1969, and April 1970. On each trip, he’d purchase two kilos of Turkish hashish for $200 apiece, tape them to his torso (there was no airport security back then), and sell it in the States for $5,000. He loved Istanbul.

“I loved the city,” says Hayes. “I’d spent weeks, and weeks, and weeks in Istanbul. It’s the city of my youthful dreams, and adventure. I loved the people, the food, the hash, and the history of it—climbing up these 1,000-year-old walls.”

He pauses to relish the flashback. “I had a motorcycle, a chunk of hash in one pocket and a chunk of cash in the other. It was the ‘60s. No AIDS. Free love. God, I miss the ‘60s.”

But on October 7, 1970, Turkish authorities caught him. Unbeknownst to Hayes, airport security had tightened due to the PLO’s bombing of Swissair Flight 330 earlier that year, and when he was patted-down, they found the bricks, and threw him in the slammer.

One thing you won’t find in the film is that, while in prison, Hayes took a lover—a French man. But despite Hayes and Davis’s protestations (Davis was also bisexual), the subplot proved to be too racy for 1978 producers and audiences.

“In the movie, they would not allow that,” Hayes tells me. “Brad fought very hard to have a scene in the shower where they come together, and Brad said, ‘Just let the steam come up. Let it be ambiguous.’ They fought him and finally caved and shot it, but then got rid of it in the editing room. They forced Brad to do what he called ‘the headshake’ to deny it.”

Hayes shakes his head, and sighs deeply. “They let their protagonist smuggle drugs, kill a guy, bite another guy’s tongue out, but not touch another human being. It says something about the producers, and the age. What’s their bottom line? Money. They were afraid. Brad would’ve had it more realistic, and so would I. Hell, I don’t give a shit. It was the ‘60s! Do whatever you want and leave everyone else the fuck alone.”

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Another omission is Hayes’s transcendent acid trip. In the play, he details how his friends in the U.S. and Amsterdam would ship him 10 acid tabs at a time to prison, hidden under stamps affixed on envelopes. One day, he dropped a tab and experienced a moment of clarity—realizing that “love is all the matters,” and to take each day in stride.

But that pales in comparison to the biggest alteration—the ending. Hayes never killed a guard (one of his fellow inmates did, however, shooting one to death following his release). After Hayes’s father sent him $2,700 buried within the binding of a book, he bribed the prison doctor to have him transferred for health reasons to İmralı Prison, a facility located on a small Turkish island off the Sea of Marmara, in 1975. There, he stole a rowboat one night and made his way to Bandirma, dyed his blond, curly mane jet black, and then crossed the border to Greece. Due to the fraught relations between Turkey and Greece, he was safe. After, they Greek authorities interrogated him about Turkish intelligence, they deported him to Frankfurt, and then he flew to Amsterdam for five days of unwinding.

“I wish they included the real ending,” says Hayes. “I sat with Oliver [Stone] in a room in the May Fair Hotel in London working on the script. Oliver was young and crazy. Totally crazy. There was a lot of weed, he snorted a ton of coke, was guzzling Bloody Marys. He wanted to see beneath the lines of the book. Oliver put it in the original draft of the script, the sea escape in the boat, but it never made it into the final draft.”

Now, one iconic scene in the film that did really happen is the prison sequence in which Billy’s American girlfriend pays him a visit, and presses her bare breast against the glass divider while shrieking, “Oh, Billy…!”

When I mention the scene to Hayes, he cracks up. Hayes has stayed in contact with that very girlfriend, Barbara Belmont, and even spoke to her a week ago. She now lives in Colorado and smokes legal marijuana to offset the symptoms of Lyme disease and breast cancer.

“That’s really true! My girlfriend, Barbara, came to visit me and exposed her breast through the window. They didn’t have cameras and shit back then,” he says. “I’ve seen Jim Carrey doing it in The Cable Guy and a scene in Family Guy where the dog gets arrested and exposes his breast.”

It took practice for Hayes to sharpen his show, Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes. The show began with a three-month stint earlier this year at the St. Luke’s Theater in New York (which the Times loved), followed by stints in London and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It’s now playing through Nov. 30 at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York’s Greenwich Village, and each performance is followed by an intimate, 20-minute audience Q&A with Hayes where he answers any burning questions. He’s hopeful for Ireland and New Zealand runs in 2015. “I’m not haunted by my experience anymore, and doing the play is very cathartic for me,” he says.

Hayes’s plight seems particularly relevant given the cultural conversation—spurned by pundits like Bill Maher and Sam Harris—about Islam, which those two view as inherently evil. Despite his years of torture and imprisonment at the hands of Muslims, Hayes thinks it’s wrong to single out Islam.

“I think religion in general is the source of most human misery,” he says. “They’re all the same. It’s invisible fucking men in the sky who are telling some man how to live your life, and then this structure sprouts up around it. Christ speaks of love and the Prophet Muhammad speaks of peace, but in their names, there’s been so much death and misery. If there is a God, please save us from the things men do in Your name!”

He adds, “Fundamentalism, whether it’s Christian, Muslim, or anything else, is insane. The only thing that makes sense in any religion is love. Love one another.”

But doing the play has seemed to light a fire in Hayes who, at 67, is wildly energetic and animated during the performance, as well as in conversation. He doesn’t smoke hash anymore because of his ordeal, but smokes weed regularly (“Shit is way more potent today,” he says), and is ultimately happy that States are beginning to legalize marijuana. “It’s all culture wars,” he says. “Nixon hated the left, so he attacked them. Now, it’s all about money.”

Hayes visited Turkey again in 2007 to attend the 2nd Istanbul Conference on Democracy and Global Security, and delivered a heartfelt apology to the Turkish people for his book’s (and the film’s) negative impact on their country.

“The movie is totally xenophobic and brutal against the Turks,” he tells me. “It hurt a lot of people.”

On October 29 of this year, 44 years after he was imprisoned in Turkey, Hayes was invited by the country to raise the Turkish flag on Wall Street as part of their annual Republic Day celebrations.

“Raising the Turkish flag was very healing for me, and I think a little for Turkey as well,” says Hayes, choking up a bit. “You can’t write this shit, and if you did, people would say you were crazy.”