By Adam Bernstein
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."
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."