Peter Yates: Film and theatre director best known for the thriller ‘Bullitt’

The first American film made by the British film director Peter Yates was one of the screen's most successful thrillers, Bullitt (1968), which included a car chase that is sometimes cited as the most exciting committed to film, partly because Yates and his cinematographer William Fraker decided to strap cameras to the cars themselves to give an added sense of involvement and immediacy. Because of Bullitt, Yates is sometimes thought of as an action director, and his most successful films included such thrillers as The Deep and The House on Carroll Street, but he worked (with varying results) in a variety of genres – his first film was a musical, Summer Holiday (1963), one of Cliff Richard's most popular hits.

The son of a career soldier, Colonel Robert Yates, he was born Peter James Yates in 1929 in the village of Ewshot, Hampshire, and educated at Charterhouse, where he developed an interest in acting. He trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and made his debut as a stage director in repertory in the provinces at the age of 19 before a productive period as an actor, stage manager and director at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square.

Entering films as a dubbing assistant, he graduated to assistant director on the modest "B" movie Cover Girl Killer (1959), but he was soon working on such prestigious vehicles as Sons and Lovers (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961), The Guns of Navarone (1961) and The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961). He honed his talents as a director on television series, including episodes of The Saint and Danger Man before making his feature debut on Summer Holiday. The director Michael Winner, who also began his career with pop-star vehicles, said, "Established directors refused to make films with pop stars, whom they considered 'temporary phenomena' and 'messenger boys', so the producers turned to younger people like myself, Dick Lester and Peter Yates."

The story of a group of teenagers who hire a bus in which to tour the world, Summer Holiday was suitably bright and breezy and directed with confidence by Yates. His Royal Court background was then reflected in his decision to direct a film version of NF Simpson's surreal stage comedy One Way Pendulum (1964), which he had directed on stage. A highlight of its sustained idiocy was the sequence in which Jonathan Miller teaches his '"speak your weight" machines to perform the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah. Simpson's advocates admired Yates' flair, but the humour was too offbeat for mainstream audiences.

Yates demonstrated what was to become a trademark, a sure touch for swiftly-paced action, with Robbery (1967), inspired by the Great Train Robbery of 1963. The New York Times said of it, '"This sure-footed cops and robbers case is a dandy of its kind, right up to the home stretch."

In his younger days, disappointed with his progress in the theatre, Yates had pursued a passion for driving racing cars, working for Stirling Moss, and the pace he brought to Robbery, in particular the breathless opening car chase, so impressed the actor Steve McQueen that he requested that Yates direct him in Bullitt (1968). The result was a resounding critical and commercial hit that made McQueen a superstar and featured one of the most breathtaking car chases put on film, with automobiles bouncing and bounding through the switchback streets of San Francisco as McQueen, at the wheel of his Ford Mustang, pursued the villains.

Bullitt also had an involving script, surprisingly cynical in its depiction of an uneasy alliance between police, politicians and the underworld. Time magazine wrote, "Reminiscent in style of the good old Warner Bros crime films of the '40s, Bullitt is given a distinct touch of Now by director Peter Yates. The movie is full of gritty city details and is given a streaking pace." Yates also exploited the potent chemistry between McQueen and his co-star, Jacqueline Bisset.

Yates remained in the US for the next 15 years, directing a diverse bunch of films that varied in quality but invariably attracted stars. Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow starred as a young couple who meet in a singles bar in the beguiling romantic comedy John and Mary (1969), Peter O'Toole was a maverick Irishman who destroys an enemy U-boat with a ramshackle fighter plane in the last days of the Second World War in Murphy's War (1971), and Robert Redford headed the caper comedy The Hot Rock (1972).

Yates explored the world of gangsters again – specifically the question, "What do gangsters do when they are too old for the rackets?" in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, in which an ageing hoodlum, concerned that his family will be on welfare if he is sent to prison, finds himself in a web of treachery and deceit when he agrees to act as informant for the Treasury. Shot in a chilly Boston, the film was too pessimistically bleak for popular acceptance, but it has since become a cult favourite and one of Yates' most highly regarded films, with a fine central performance by Robert Mitchum.

For Pete's Sake (1974) was a laboured attempt at screwball comedy and a disappointing vehicle for Barbra Streisand, and Mother, Jugs and Speed, a crass black comedy about three ambulance drivers and their customers, gave Yates two failures in a row. But his film version of The Deep (1977), an underwater thriller written by Peter Benchley, author of Jaws, with Robert Shaw and Bisset as scuba divers discovering a submerged cache of diamonds and drugs, though disliked by critics, was a major success. Yates was the first to admit that putting his leading lady into a wet-suit was a major part of the film's attraction.

One of Yates' finest films was Breaking Away (1979), reminiscent of American Graffiti in its account of four former college chums, unemployed during their first summer since graduation, pondering their futures while becoming involved in bicycle racing. Yates did justice to a fine script (which won an Oscar for Steve Tesich), giving particular resonance to the funny and touching relationship between a bicycle-mad youth (Denis Christopher) and his parents (Paul Dooley and Barbara Barrie).

Breaking Away brought Yates two Oscar nominations, for both producing and directing. (Yates first worked with Tesich, a Yugoslav immigrant, when he directed the writer's play, Passing Game, off-Broadway in 1977.) Eyewitness (1981) was also written by Tesich, inspired by his own infatuation with a television newscaster while working as a janitor. The janitor in his script (William Hurt) finds the opportunity to promote a relationship with a newscaster (Sigourney Weaver) by pretending that he has information about a killing.

It was a workmanlike if fanciful thriller, but the sci-fi fantasy Krull 1983) was one of the director's major failures, its plodding pace indicating that it was not a genre to which Yates warmed. He was much happier with the theatrical atmosphere of The Dresser (1985), for which he returned to the UK. An adaptation of Ronald Harwood's play, with bravura performances by Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay as a roistering actor-manager (based on Donald Wolfit) and his devoted dresser who lives life vicariously through his employer, it was persuasively realised by Yates, who created convincingly the insular world of a rundown touring company during the war. Yates was again nominated for two Oscars, as director and producer.

Eleni (1985) was an emotional tale of a reporter who goes to Greece to discover the truth about his mother's murder during the civil war, and it was followed by a solid courtroom drama, Suspect (1987). Yates then made a Hitchcock-like thriller, The House on Carroll Street (1988) that starts intriguingly, promising to be a first-rate mystery, but has a disappointing final section (one leading character simply disappears). An Innocent Man (1989) also evoked Hitchcock (specifically The Wrong Man) in its tale of a wrongly convicted man, after which Yates provided Peter Falk with the chance for an acting tour de force in Roommates (1995), as an eccentric old man raising a five-year-old grandson, and a father-son relationship was at the heart of The Run of the Country (1995), an Irish-set drama starring Finney.

Yates' last film was a misguided supernatural comedy, Curtain Call (1999) starring Michael Caine, after which he directed a lavish television production of Don Quixote (2000) starring John Lithgow. He ended his career with a television movie based on John Knowles' novel A Separate Peace (2005).

Peter James Yates, film director and producer and theatre director: born 24 July 1929; married 1960 Virginia Pope (two sons, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died London 9 January 2011.

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