Peter Yates Dies: Oscar-Nominated Filmmaker

Steve McQueen Bullitt
Albert Finney Tom Courtenay The Dresser
Steve McQueen, Bullitt (top); Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, The Dresser (bottom)

Peter Yates

Peter Yates, Oscar nominated for directing and producing Best Film nominees Breaking Away (1979) and The Dresser (1983), has died after “a long illness.” The news was first reported by Deadline.com. Yates, who is probably best known for the 1968 car-chasing thriller Bullitt, was 81 or 82, depending on the source.

Following an apprenticeship in the English theater, Yates (born July 24, 1928 or 1929, in Aldershot, Hampshire, England) began his film career as a dubbing assistant at a London studio.

He worked his way up to assistant director in several important international productions, e.g., Mark Robson's The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), Jack Cardiff's Sons and Lovers (1960), J. Lee Thompson's The Guns of Navarone (1961), before being handed his first full-fledged directorial assignment: the B musical Summer Holiday (1963), starring Cliff Richard.

Yates would become an internationally renowned filmmaker following the success of Bullitt, which starred Steve McQueen as a determined San Francisco cop. Editor Frank P. Keller should probably take some credit for the film's success as well, for Bullitt is chiefly known for its thrilling car chase through the hilly streets of San Francisco.

Yates' other efforts were a mix of hits and misses, mostly the latter. The quirky John & Mary (1969), starring Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow, wasn't exactly a critical hit and failed to reach the box office heights of Hoffman's The Graduate (1967). The Barbra Streisand comedy For Pete's Sake (1974) has its moments, but it's hardly what one would call a classic of the genre.

Written by Jaws' Peter Benchley, The Deep (1977) was an attempt to cash in on the success of the 1975 Steven Spielberg blockbuster. Though not nearly as successful, The Deep was nevertheless a major box office hit; critics, however, were unimpressed – and for good reason. Even though Jacqueline Bisset did look good in tight swimwear and the underwater shots were quite remarkable, the suspenseless adventure about undersea treasure hunters barely plodded along.

On the plus side, Yates deftly handled the crime caper The Hot Rock (1972), which starred Robert Redford and George Segal, while his Breaking Away (1979) was a sleeper hit that earned a surprising five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. (Screenwriter Steve Tesich took home the Oscar. Unsurprisingly, the two best elements in the film, Dennis Christopher's and Paul Dooley's performances, went nominationless.)

In Breaking Away, a small-town Indiana teenager (Christopher) much to his shock and horror discovers that his Italian bike-racing idols are cheats. The teen's life would never be the same again. No more Italian opera for him.

Some consider this conventional and highly sentimental coming-of-age tale to be Yates' best effort. Among those were probably most members of the generally more daring National Society of Film Critics, which selected Breaking Away as their Best Film of 1979.

Another well-received Yates' effort was The Dresser, a highly theatrical film adaptation of Ronald Harwood's West End/Broadway play, adapted by Harwood himself and reportedly based on his own experiences as Donald Wolfit's dresser. In the film version, Albert Finney overplays the role of an egotistical Shakespearean actor while Tom Courtenay resorts to every effeminate mannerism on record to convey the Shakespearean actor's screamingly queenish dresser. Both actors were nominated for Academy Awards, and so was the film.

With the exception of the sci-fier Krull (1983), Yates' other movies of the 1980s were all minor fare, among them the silly mystery thriller Eyewitness (1981), starring William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver, and the critically panned Suspect (1987), with Cher, Dennis Quaid, and Liam Neeson.

Yates' few later efforts were even less prestigious. Among those were Year of the Comet (1992), with Penelope Ann Miller, and Curtain Call (1999), with James Spader.

Peter Yates' last directorial effort was the television drama A Separate Peace (2004), based on John Knowles' novel.

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