Peter Yates, director of 'Bullitt' and 'Breaking Away,' dies at 81

Peter Yates produced dramatic, sci-fi and comedy films.
Peter Yates produced dramatic, sci-fi and comedy films. (Associated Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 10:08 PM

Peter Yates, the director whose 1968 cop thriller "Bullitt" included one of the most riveting, engine-growling car chases ever filmed, and who later impressed audiences with a more understated road movie about bicyclists, "Breaking Away," died Jan. 9 in London of an undisclosed illness. He was 81.

Despite a handful of movie highlights, the English-born Yates had a workmanlike career spanning six decades. He earned Academy Award nominations for directing and producing "Breaking Away" (1979), starring Dennis Christopher as an Indiana youth comically obsessed with Italian cycling, and the corrosive backstage story "The Dresser" (1983), starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay.

Mr. Yates's understated craftsmanship with a car chase in the British heist drama "Robbery" (1967) impressed actor Steve McQueen, the macho, blond actor who specialized in charismatic antihero roles and who was a semiprofessional auto racer.

As a result, Mr. Yates was invited to work in Hollywood on "Bullitt," which featured McQueen as a rebellious detective who shows complete disregard for San Francisco traffic laws in the film's most celebrated sequence.

In an otherwise conventional police story, the centerpiece of the film was the 10-minute car chase between Bullitt, driving a 1968 Ford Mustang GT, and henchmen in a 1968 Dodge Charger R/T.

Mr. Yates spent more than two weeks orchestrating the action with cinematographer William Fraker on what has often been called the greatest car chase ever filmed.

Mr. Yates said he wanted the scene to be "a real car chase, unlike so many other movies where the chases just become demolition jobs."

McQueen did much of the driving and relied on stuntman Bud Ekins for some of the trickiest scenes, in which the cars sped 100 mph through the streets of San Francisco - screeching around serpentine roadways, practically achieving liftoff against the city's terraced avenues.

Mr. Yates once said he was filming in the back of the Mustang when McQueen was nearing 120 mph.

"We came to the last downhill section and when we got to the top of the hill Steve was still going pretty fast," he told the Associated Press. "I tapped him on the shoulder and said, 'We can slow down now, we're almost out of film.' Steve said very calmly, 'We can't. There aren't any brakes.' "

Mr. Yates said McQueen assuredly drove the car past the film crew and along a main road before taking the vehicle up an embankment to slow it down.

"If it was anyone else, we might not have made it," Mr. Yates said. "Steve was a great driver."

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