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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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After "Bullitt," Mr. Yates undertook Hollywood projects that might have seemed promising because of script pedigree or star power. But he said they were seldom very good.

The London Daily Telegraph quoted him commenting on his later movie output: "I put it somewhere below meals for the aged, but a little way above manufacturing toothpaste."

Such fare included "John and Mary" (1969), with Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow as a quarrelsome couple; the relentlessly crass comedy "Mother, Jugs & Speed" (1976), starring Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch and Harvey Keitel as employees of a private ambulance company; and the superior Boston gangster drama "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" (1973), with Robert Mitchum as a small-time hood whose luck has run out.

Mr. Yates directed Peter O'Toole in the World War II drama "Murphy's War" (1971), Robert Redford in the crime caper "The Hot Rock" (1972) and Barbra Streisand in "For Pete's Sake" (1974), a farce whose only flaw was not being very funny.

Mr. Yates's underwater folly "The Deep" (1977) was based on a novel by the man who wrote "Jaws," Peter Benchley. "The Deep" was a commercial success - Jacqueline Bisset's naughty swim in a T-shirt and bikini bottom was a decisive factor in audience approval - but the film was lambasted by critics.

Mr. Yates surprised many reviewers with what is often considered his most charming and appealing film: "Breaking Away," a coming-of-age story about a working-class teen in Bloomington, Ind., who is resentful of the privileged university students in his town and becomes devoted to Italian cycling and culture as a way to prove his superiority.

The film starred Dennis Christopher as the young man who renames his cat Fellini (his real name was Jake) and irritates his father (Paul Dooley) with shouts of "Buon giorno, papa!" and his insistence on eating "eenie" foods like zucchini and fettucini.

New York Times movie critic Janet Maslin praised Mr. Yates's "subtle and imaginative success."

Mr. Yates also scored critical plaudits with "The Dresser," based on Ronald Harwood's stage play about an emotionally exhausted British actor who is about to perform "King Lear" for the 427th time, and his doting but resentful manservant. Finney as Sir, the actor, and Courtenay, repeating his Broadway run as Norman, also received Oscar nominations.

Peter Yates was born July 24, 1929, in Aldershot, a town southwest of London. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Mr. Yates directed plays in the British provinces and dabbled in car racing in Surrey - he claimed it was because he was a terrible actor and needed to earn a living.

He entered the British film industry in 1953 as a voice-dubbing assistant and soon became assistant director to Tony Richardson on "The Entertainer" (1960), featuring Laurence Olivier, and to J. Lee Thompson on "The Guns of Navarone" (1961).

In 1960, Mr. Yates married Virginia Pope. He reportedly had three children, but a complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

Mr. Yates worked frequently on television. His other movie credits included the thriller "Suspect" (1987) with Dennis Quaid and Cher, the science-fiction drama "Krull" (1983), and "Year of the Comet" (1992), a romantic action-comedy with Penelope Ann Miller that featured a helicopter chase.

"Chases continue to fascinate me,'' Mr. Yates said at the time. "It's a way of moving the story along quickly. The challenge is in keeping the characters in the scene and making it look dangerous."

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