Peter Yates was the Oscar-nominated director of Breaking Away and The Dresser, but is best known for his Steve McQueen film, Bullitt
Peter Yates, director of Summer Holiday and Bullitt
In the classic 1968 cop film Bullitt, the British-born film director Peter Yates set the gold standard for the car chase that would become a quintessential feature of American movie thrillers. Oft imitated, seldom bettered, the high-octane footage of a Ford Mustang roaring through the streets of San Francisco in pursuit of a Dodge full of killers heralded a new era in action sequences. The sense of immediacy and danger was heightened by the decision of Yates and his cinematographer, William Fraker, to fix cameras to the cars themselves to record the action. The film also gave its star, Steve McQueen, iconic status.
Yates went on to have a varied career as a filmmaker, carving out a solid reputation - with the occasional miss here and there - but never quite attaining the upper echelons of the industry.
Born in England, he entered repertory theatre in the late 1940s as an actor, before finding work as a racing driver and manager for the internationally successful Stirling Moss. A graduate of London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he began his film career as a dubbing editor on foreign features and went on to work as assistant director on The Entertainer, A Taste of Honey and The Guns of Navarone, among other films.
He was nominated for an Academy Award as both director and producer not only for his rousing coming-of-age story about a cycling-mad teenager in Indiana, Breaking Away (1979), but also for the backstage drama The Dresser (1983), about an ageing actor and his assistant, starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay, but never won the coveted prize. Breaking Away was sweet, smart and funny. It starred Dennis Christopher as Dave, one of four friends who decide to compete in Indiana's Little 500 cycle race. Dave, the only serious cyclist, dreams of being on an elite racing team like the Italians, and his dream then morphs into one of simply being Italian. His parents are less keen on the idea of renaming the family cat "Fellini".
Yates's first film as a director was the upbeat 1963 musical Summer Holiday, in which Cliff Richard, advertised optimistically as the "British Elvis", and some similarly musically inclined friends drive a red London bus across continental Europe aiming for Athens. It was the second most popular film at the UK box office that year. From Russia with Love, the second outing for Ian Fleming's James Bond, came in first.
It was Yates's direction of the 1967 film Robbery, a heavily fictionalised version of the story behind the Great Train Robbery of 1963, that positioned Yates for Bullitt the following year and launched the long US chapter of his career.
He moved to New York and continued to make films in the United States. When he made British films he tended to secure backing from Hollywood studios.
"In some ways, it's easier for me not having been brought up in this country [America], which leads to forming certain opinions and having one's eye get used to certain things," he said in a 1987 interview. "A director is like a chameleon, and it's easier being a chameleon if you're coming fresh onto a scene."
His creative peak came between 1968 and 1973 with a number of thrillers, including Murphy's War (1971), which starred Peter O'Toole. Two years later he directed Robert Mitchum as a small-time hood desperate to avoid jail time in the crime drama The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
But then came The Deep in 1977, commercially successful but critically abhorred, and the dreadful fantasy Krull in 1983.
The former's chief appeal seemed to be the sight of Jacqueline Bisset in tantalising form-fitting clothing and the occasional presence of a gigantic moray eel in the watery background.
Latterly, he had directed for television and ended his career with a film made for television, adapted from the John Knowles novel A Separate Peace.
He is survived by his wife, Virginia, a son and daughter.
Born July 24, 1929. Died January 9, 2011
* The National