From a Nassau County suburb to Ankara to Okinawa to Amagansett, the path of life for Michael Jeffrey Griffith has been anything but dull, and now his story has become the inspiration for a new television series, with Michael S. Chernuchin, part of the creative team of the long-running “Law and Order” series, in charge.
“Who’d have thunk it?” Mr. Griffith asked on Saturday, sitting in his living room overlooking the Atlantic.
Born in 1943 in Malverne, he was a star athlete at Valley Stream North High School, excelling in several sports, including track and baseball. Though a good enough player to be invited to the Los Angeles Dodgers spring training camp as a teenager, Mr. Griffith knew that ballplayers retire at an age where most careers just start to take off. Instead, inspired by his uncle, Arthur Klein, a long-time congressman from lower Manhattan who went on to become a Justice of the State Supreme Court, he pursued a career as an attorney.
A graduate of the University of Virginia, where he majored in foreign affairs, and of John Marshall Law School in Atlanta, Mr. Griffith was admitted to the bar in 1973. After working in the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office for a couple of years, he decided to go out on his own. But first, he said, he wanted to take a vacation.
It was a trip that changed another young man’s life.
“I was going to the Greek islands to spend my last days of freedom before I started looking for a job,” Mr. Griffith remembered.
A friend who knew he was well versed in foreign affairs asked him whether there was anything he could do while he was away for Billy Hayes, an American convicted of hashish smuggling, who was languishing in a Turkish prison. Mr. Griffith took a detour to Turkey, met with the United States ambassador, and took on Mr. Hayes’s case.
Eventually, the young lawyer negotiated a deal with the Turkish government that would allow Mr. Hays to serve out his sentence, 25 years, in an American prison. Before the deal was completed, however, Mr. Hayes escaped.
“Thank God he escaped! It made a better movie,” Mr. Griffith joked.
Mr. Hayes’s book, “Midnight Express,” which told of his ordeal, sold over three million copies before being turned into the hit movie by the same name, which went on to win two Academy Awards, including one to Oliver Stone for Best Screenplay. Among Mr. Griffith’s prized possessions is a copy of the book, signed by the author, along with the letters Mr. Hayes sent him from prison.
The last chapter of “Midnight Express” begins with a letter written by William B. Macomber Jr., then U.S. ambassador to Turkey, praising Mr. Griffith’s efforts to secure Mr. Hayes’s freedom. The letter, which is reproduced in its entirety, includes Mr. Griffith’s contact information, and the book became the lawyer’s calling card.
“You know what it’s like?” he asked. “You know how in every hotel room, there is a Gideon Bible? Well, in every prison in the world, there is a copy of ‘Midnight Express’ in the library.”
His phone hasn’t stopped ringing since. Mr. Griffith has testified as an expert witness in front of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and has toured Mexican prisons, explaining what their rights are to Americans held there. With his partners at his law firm, International Legal Defense Counsel, he developed a protocol for Americans to follow should they be arrested in a foreign country.
Building on the work he’d done in Turkey and elsewhere, Mr. Griffith has negotiated an international treaty that’s been ratified by over 35 nations, allowing prisoners in foreign lands to serve out their sentences in their native countries.
“I’ve been to over 40 countries,” he said, handling dozens of prominent international disputes. Among them was the case of David Daliberti and William Barloon, two American mechanics who mistakenly wandered across the border from Kuwait into Sadaam Hussein’s Iraq in March of 1995. Mr. Griffith managed to negotiate their release, no easy task.
He defended two American G.I.s accused of raping a 12-year-old girl in Okinawa in 1995. According to Mr. Griffith, the men confessed under duress, in Japan’s notorious Dayo Kanguko detention center; they still proclaim their innocence.
He won acquittal for Ted Maher, an American male nurse accused of arson in a fire that led to the death of the international banker Edmond Safra in Monaco.
When he was younger, said the lawyer, he would travel in person wherever necessary, but over the years he has developed “a coterie of contacts,” including attorneys and government officials, around the world.
“Now, not only can I get you a lawyer in that country,” he said, “I can get you a lawyer from the particular city you were arrested in. That’s important. If you get arrested in East Hampton, you don’t want a lawyer coming from New York City. You want somebody who knows their way around. Who knows the prosecutors, they may know the judges. Any place in the world is the same. That is what I try to do, identify the right lawyer in the right country in any particular city.”
While his cases and countries are a swirl now in Mr. Griffith’s past, there are two constants in his life. One is his wife, Nancy Grigor, a former leading model at the Ford Talent Agency who now heads Hamptons Locations, which scouts locations for still photos and commercials shot on the East End. The other is his beachfront house in Amagansett. Recently he added a third constant, his pride and joy, a 2012 Porsche Carrera S.
The TV series he’s signed a deal for, which will put his unusual life story on the screen, will be produced by Sony International through Escape Artists, a company headed by Mr. Chernuchin. The scripts are already written, Mr. Griffith said, with a search on for the lead. Names like Liam Neeson and Ethan Hawke have been bandied about. Each episode will be a fictionalized version of one of Mr. Griffith’s cases.
“Who would have thunk it?” Mr. Griffith repeated, laughing, as he walked onto his deck to watch the waves roll in.