Peter Yates, the British director of “Breaking Away,” “The Dresser” and “Bullitt,” the 1968 Steve McQueen movie whose landmark car chase sequence over the hilly streets of San Francisco was a career-defining moment for both director and star, has died. He was 81.
Yates died Sunday in London after an illness, his agent, Judy Daish, said in a statement reported by the Associated Press.
In a career that began with the 1963 Cliff Richard pop musical “Summer Holiday,” Yates directed more than two dozen movies, including “Murphy’s War,” “The Hot Rock,” “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” “For Pete’s Sake,” “The Deep,” “Mother Jugs & Speed” and “Eyewitness.”
As a director, Yates received two Academy Award nominations — for “Breaking Away,” a light-hearted coming-of-age tale set in Indiana; and for “The Dresser,” a 1983 backstage story set in wartime England with Albert Finney as an actor-manager trying to keep his company afloat and Tom Courtney as his dedicated dresser.
Yates also was the producer of “Breaking Away” and a producer of “The Dresser,” both of which received Oscar nominations for best picture.
He had directed only three films before making his American film debut with “Bullitt,” whose cast included Robert Vaughn and Jacqueline Bisset.
A car chase in “Robbery,” Yates’ realistic 1967 thriller based on the Great Train Robbery of the Royal Mail in 1963, had come to the attention of McQueen, whose company produced “Bullitt.”
During the making of “Bullitt,” McQueen was more than willing to get behind the wheel of his police detective character’s dark green Mustang fastback for the chase sequence with the bad guys in a Dodge Charger.
In a 1992 Associated Press interview, Yates remembered McQueen as “a lot of macho,” which became abundantly clear while directing one part of the chase.
“I was in the back of the Mustang and Steve was going about 120 mph,” Yates recalled. “We came to the last downhill section and when we got to the top of the hill Steve was still going pretty fast. I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘We can slow down now, we’re almost out of film.’ Steve very calmly said, ‘We can’t. There aren’t any brakes.’”
The Mustang, according to the AP account, continued to race down the hill past the film crew and onto a main road before McQueen slowed it down by driving up an embankment.
“If it was anyone else, we might not have made it,” Yates said. “Steve was a great driver.”
In the wake of “Bullitt,” Yates directed the 1969 love story “John and Mary,” starring Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow.
“After ‘Bullitt,’ I was determined not to do another action film,” he told The Times in 2000. “That may have been a mistake, but my theory was, perhaps selfishly, it’s much more interesting to be involved with different kinds of genres.
“If you’re just one kind of director, people will get tired of you. But if you make different films all the time, hopefully you’ll be judged on talent.”
Yates, who once said that when he was in Los Angeles he “always felt like a tea-planter in a colonial outpost,” has been described as down-to-earth, soft-spoken, unassuming and professorial.
“Peter Yates was a very civilized and cultured man, which certainly added to his cinematic contribution,” Jacqueline Bisset, who appeared in both “The Deep” and “Bullitt.” said in a statement Monday. “He was courageous, even intrepid, during the shooting of ‘The Deep’ and ‘Bullitt.’ I value the long friendship with Peter and his wife, Virginia.”
Along with the classic chase sequence in “Bullitt,” the appearance of Bisset diving in a body-clinging white T-shirt in “The Deep” provided another iconic moment in Yates’ filmography.
Yates chuckled when asked by the Independent of London in 1997 if it bothered him that his career could be “distilled down to such basics.”
“My son accused me of exactly that,” he said. “He told me recently that I’d contributed two things to American culture — the car chase and the wet T-shirt.”
But, he said, “It’s better to contribute something than absolutely nothing.”
Born in Aldershot, Hampshire, England on July 24, 1929, he was trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and began his career as an actor. He also reportedly spent several seasons as a race car driver and as a manager for other drivers.
After working as a dubbing editor on foreign films, Yates became an assistant film director in the late ‘50s, working on J. Lee Thompson’s “The Guns of Navarone” and Tony Richardson’s “The Entertainer” and “A Taste of Honey.”
Yates also directed segments of the TV series “The Saint” and “Secret Agent” in the 1960s.
“Curtain Call” a 1999 romantic fantasy, was his last theatrical feature film as a director; his last two credits — “Don Quixote” (2000) and “A Separate Place” (2004) — were TV movies.
Survivors include his wife, Virginia Pope; a son and a daughter.