By Samantha Miller
November 29, 1999 12:00 PM

With feet propped up on his dining room table and phone in hand, Billy Hayes takes in some bad news. An actor in Break of Day, a play he’s directing at a small L.A. theater, will miss three performances to tape a TV role. The production may have to go dark, but there’s nothing Hayes can do—the cast isn’t being paid. “It’s only theater,” he says later, sighing. “I’m healthy, I’m alive, my wife loves me, and nobody is beating my feet.”

The wiry 52-year-old isn’t just being dramatic. Convicted in 1970 of trying to sneak hashish out of Istanbul, Hayes endured floggings and nightmarish conditions in Turkish prisons before escaping five years into his 30-year sentence. His memoir was turned into the 1978 movie Midnight Express, a box office smash that won two Oscars.

The ensuing celebrity launched Hayes’s life in unexpected directions: He met his wife, Wendy, at the 1978 Cannes International Film Festival, and he embarked on a showbiz career—first as an actor and then as a theatrical director and screenwriter. But a day rarely goes by when Hayes doesn’t think about his ordeal. “I didn’t realize what I had until I lost it,” he says. “I was a product of the ’60s and took everything for granted in the U.S. Try washing from a sink once a week for five years, and you learn to appreciate what’s right about this country.”

Today, Hayes shares an L.A. bungalow with Wendy, 45, who is studying to be a yoga instructor. Having given up acting—in the ’80s, he appeared briefly on All My Children and One Life to Live—he has directed plays in L.A. and New York City and runs theater workshops for inner-city teens. “His life experience rubs off,” says Break of Day lead Brendan Ford, praising Hayes as “naturally passionate.”

“Billy was always wild,” agrees his brother Bob, 49, an insurance executive. It got the North Babylon, N.Y., native into trouble. As a rebellious 23-year-old returning from a drug-laced jaunt through Europe, Hayes was nabbed at the Istanbul airport, carrying two kilograms of hashish he hoped to sell for $5,000. In prison he suffered physical abuse—one guard battered his feet with a wooden club—and the anguish of his insurance-salesman father and homemaker mother, who mortgaged their house to pay for his court battles. “That was by far the worst part,” he says.

In Express, Hayes (Brad Davis) busts out by killing a guard and swiping his keys. In reality, Hayes fooled guards, paddled a dinghy 10 miles through a storm to escape his island prison and dodged soldiers to make it to Greece. An American pal, played by Randy Quaid in the film, had been caught on a previous escape try. “I owed him my life,” says Hayes, who lobbied for a 1979 prisoner exchange that freed his friend.

Hayes’s own 1975 return made him an instant celebrity: “I stepped off the plane and there were 100 reporters waiting for me,” he says. The glare intensified when his 1977 book (written with a ghostwriter) hit the screen, winning an Oscar for writer Oliver Stone and acclaim for Davis, who died of AIDS in 1991.

Hayes credits Wendy, whom he wed in 1980, for taming his wild streak and says acting classes helped him exorcise lingering nightmares. “Billy has healed a lot,” says Wendy. “He’s been able to integrate the trauma into his art.” One of his projects these days is the as-yet-unmade movie Midnight Return, which would tell the real story of his prison escape and his friend’s release. His script was bought in 1998 by the producers of TV’s Highlander; they are now looking for a director.

Another goal: assuaging some Turks’ still-sharp anger about their Express portrayal. (Turkey lifted an arrest warrant for him in 1995.) “There was an impression that all Turks were bad, and that wasn’t true,” he says. Earlier this year, Hayes said just that in an interview aired on Turkish TV. A producer told him he had been “a big hit,” he says, and invited him to Istanbul. He laughs. “I wasn’t ready to go that far yet.”

Samantha Miller

Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles