Peter Yates, the British director who broke into American film with the Steve McQueen-starring Bullitt and earned Oscar nominations for Breaking Away and The Dresser, died over the weekend after suffering a long illness. He was 82.
Yates got his start as a stage actor and then progressed to working behind the scenes in the film industry as an assistant to director Tony Richardson. His directorial debut, 1963’s Summer Holiday, was a musical starring pop singer Cliff Richard, beginning a long career of stylistically divergent creative choices. After 1967’s Robbery—a fictionalized account of the Great Train Robbery—Yates made his name in Hollywood with Bullitt, a film key to establishing McQueen’s still-standing rep as one of filmdom’s biggest badasses, and a movie still remembered for its all-time-great car chase (one made without any special effects beyond stunt driving and some masterful sequencing), which would come to set the gold standard for all cinematic car chases since.
His Hollywood cred firmly established, Yates was handed big actioners like the WWII drama Murphy’s War with Peter O’Toole and the Robert Mitchum crime thriller The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, a film that proved Yates was as adept at handling tense rhythms of dialogue as he was the clockwork motions of a bank heist.
Yates lightened up in the 1970s, beginning with the Barbra Streisand comedy For Pete’s Sake in 1974, then moved on to the unlikely comic trio of Bill Cosby, Harvey Keitel, and Raquel Welch playing extremely dark and damaged ambulance drivers in 1976’s Mother, Jugs & Speed. It’s a film well worth checking out, particularly if you’ve ever wanted to see Bill Cosby harassing nuns.
Although his underwater horror film The Deep, a Peter Benchley adaptation that also starred Jaws actor Robert Shaw, failed to duplicate that film’s critical success—though a sequence of Jacqueline Bisset in a wet T-shirt did help make it a hit—Yates bounced back immediately with the coming-of-age drama Breaking Away, the story of a bicycling-obsessed, wannabe-Italian kid and his group of small-town friends from Indiana coping with life after graduation. The film scored several Oscar nominations, including a Best Director nod for Yates, and remains an exemplar of how to do a sports film without giving over into formulaic melodrama. Its closing race sequence in particular manages to be both suspenseful and inspiring without losing sight of realism.
The Academy recognized Yates again for his 1983 adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s stage play The Dresser, which starred Tom Courtenay as the beleaguered assistant to Albert Finney’s aging, drunken Shakespearean actor. Yates received another nod for Best Director, while the film was also nominated for Best Picture.
Typical for Yates’ anything-goes career, the same year The Dresser was being named one of the year’s best stately dramas, the director helmed the big-budget sci-fi epic Krull—a film that combined typical swords-and-sorcery tropes with an outer space setting, lasers, and mystical boomerangs and the like.
After the 1987 Cher/Dennis Quaid courtroom drama Suspect, the Jeff Daniels-starring period thriller The House On Carroll Street, and the Tom Selleck prison drama An Innocent Man, Yates’ output began to slow in the ’90s. His last big-screen feature, 1999’s Curtain Call (starring Michael Caine and Maggie Smith as two lovable actors-turned-ghosts haunting James Spader), precipitated a move to television, and Yates’ last two credits would be adaptations of Don Quixote and A Separate Peace—two wildly different undertakings in terms of tone and scope, befitting a director who always seemed willing to try anything once.