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.

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little