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Billy Hayes Stepped Off the Midnight Express and Embarked on a Trip of Self-Discovery

updated 12/09/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/09/1985 01:00AM

Billy Hayes is dead. You remember him—the American tourist imprisoned on a bleak island off the Turkish coast, where he served five years of a 30-year sentence for drug smuggling. It was 10 years ago that Hayes, under cover of a violent thunderstorm, stole down to the beach, took off in a row-boat and paddled to the mainland and eventual freedom. Back in the U.S. Hayes was transformed from ex-con to counterculture hero. He pounded out the story of his imprisonment, Midnight Express, in six months and collaborated on the 1978 film of the same name, starring Brad Davis as Hayes.

But as we said before, Billy Hayes is dead. In his place is William Hayes, 38, actor, college-circuit lecturer and happily married man. In plain English, a respectable citizen. The most recent proof of his blossoming thespian career is The Summons, an adventure-packed film that Hayes recently wrapped in Los Angeles. The movie, in which Hayes plays a psychopathic terrorist named Wolfgang, is scheduled to be released early next year. "My character's a real nasty guy," says Hayes. "The dark side of me that helped me survive prison is what I put into this role." Producer and director William Riead has nothing but praise for Hayes's performance. "He projects his intensity so strongly onscreen that you hate him immediately," says Riead. "He is the most vicious, lethal killer I have ever seen on the screen."

Acting, says Hayes, has been his "salvation," a route out of the emotional morass that had engulfed him after his return to the States. He was uncomfortable as a hippie hero, promoting himself and his picaresque adventures on talk shows. The success of Midnight Express was, Hayes remembers, "a double-edged sword. It got me in any door in town. People wanted to see who this weirdo was. But I wasn't being seen as who I was. Acting was a way of trying to find out who I was. I simply had to get away from Billy Hayes and all that Midnight Express stuff. I had become famous—infamous, rather—for something I didn't feel good about inside. That created a lot of static and friction within me."

In the hectic months before the film premiere, Hayes decided to move from New York to L.A. to study with drama coach Eric Morris. Slowly, Hayes began to get work, bit parts on the soaps All My Children and One Life To Live and small roles in three minor films, The Hostage, Battle Beyond the Stars and Under Arrest. He has also appeared off-off-Broadway, and recently directed, appropriately, The Cage, a prison drama for the Neighborhood Group Theater in Manhattan.

Acting dissipates Hayes's ferocious energy. As a kid, Billy, who grew up in North Babylon, Long Island, was high-spirited. At Marquette University, where he majored in English, his pals called him "Crazy," a nickname he deserved. Hayes took skydiving lessons and on a lark tried to scale a skyscraper in Milwaukee (he got to the fifth floor before he changed his mind and descended). In search of a bigger playground, he moved on to Europe in 1970, where he hung out and experimented with marijuana and psychedelics. His luck ran out on Oct. 7 of that year. On a routine airport search of passengers headed to the U.S., Turkish police discovered that Hayes had strapped four and a half pounds of hashish to his body. (He had planned to sell it back home.) "I was totally unfocused," Hayes says. "I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, and when you roam around that way, you end up smashing against a wall somewhere. I found my wall in Turkey."

Although Hayes was at first sentenced to four years for drug possession, his crime was changed to smuggling by the high court in Ankara, and the sentence was raised to 30 years. "I'm not proud of the fact that I was arrested for smuggling," Hayes says. "I'm not proud of the fact that my parents suffered for five years. That's the biggest guilt I had to deal with in jail—my mother sending me letters saying how every night she went to bed with a pain in her heart for her son. That kind of stuff just ripped me up."

Marriage to Wendy West, 31, a freelancer in film and theater production, has also helped Hayes navigate choppy emotional waters. The couple met at the world premiere of Midnight Express in Cannes seven years ago. West recalls that she and Billy stayed indoors on their first date. "We have this joke between us," she reports. "We say when we met it was lust at first sight. Love took a little while to grow."

West and Hayes now divide their time between their apartments in Manhattan and Redondo Beach. Under West's tutelage, Hayes has turned into something of a health nut. He eats very little red meat and avoids alcohol, tobacco and drugs. And as he did for the 1,821 days he spent in prison, every morning Hayes practices yoga. He says it gives him the energy he needs to pursue his global acting goals. "I'd like to do things that affect the world," says William Hayes. "I'd like to be working with people like Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, John Huston. Right now I'm doing psycho German terrorists. It's a long, slow process to make it as an actor. But I don't give up easily. I know all about patience."

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