Writer, Actor, and Film Director
Las Vegas, Nevada
Billy Hayes was arrested at the Istanbul airport in 1970 with two kilograms of hashish (cannabis) taped to his body and was sentenced to life in prison. Five years later, Hayes escaped from Imrali Island prison in the dead of night—rowing 17 miles across the Sea of Marmara in a raging storm. On his return to the United States, Hayes wrote Midnight Express, which was an instant best-seller and made into an Academy Award-winning film. When the film was released in 1978, Hayes became a mythical figure—a modern-day Billy the Kid. Fifty years later, he remains a cultural anti-hero known throughout the world.
Since publishing Midnight Express, Hayes has had an extensive career as an actor, director, writer, and public speaker. His second book, Midnight Return: Escaping Midnight Express, explores his life after prison and the parallel lives of those he left behind. In 2013, Hayes published The Midnight Express Letters: From a Turkish Prison 1970-1975, a collection of the original hand-written letters used to write his first book. Midnight Express Epilogue: Train Keeps Rolling was published in 2022.
Hayes has written and directed several plays, including Cock & Bull Story, which received the 1992 L.A. Drama Critics Circle, L.A. Weekly, and Drama-Logue awards. He then wrote and directed the film version. He directed the Amnesty International production of William Inge’s award-winning The Last Pad in Los Angeles. Hayes adapted the prison drama The Cage for an all-female cast in New York City and performed in it himself in Los Angeles at the original Odyssey Theatre. His direction of Washington Square Moves earned the 1993 LA Weekly Production of the Year award. He also staged the critically acclaimed Break of Day at the Lillian Theatre. He developed and co-produced the CBS TV movie The Bachelor’s Baby, starring Scott Bakula. In 2006, Hayes received the LA Weekly Best Actor Award for his performance in the one-act play Shuffle, Shuffle, Step, a tribute to Samuel Becket. He is a member of the Actors’ Studio West Playwright/Director Unit.
His desire to tell his own story and to correct the misconceptions created by the highly fictionalized motion picture version of Midnight Express led him to write his one-man show, Riding the Midnight Express with Billy Hayes, which had its world premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August 2013, with a return engagement at the Fringe in 2014. The show has had two critically acclaimed runs off Broadway and toured the world from London’s Soho Theatre to Melbourne, Australia. In April 2017, it played to sold-out audiences in Beirut, Lebanon.
Hayes continues to work to correct the negative images of Turkey and the Turkish people created when the film was released. In 2007, he was invited back to Turkey to speak to a convention of law enforcement officials. His life-long journey had finally come full circle, and it was documented in Midnight Return—the Story of Billy Hayes and Turkey.
Hayes credits the yoga he has practiced every day since he was incarcerated with getting him through the hard times and keeping him centered. Billy met his wife, Wendy West, at the Cannes Film Festival when Midnight Express premiered there in 1978. They’ve been married since 1980 and currently live in Las Vegas.