‘Bullitt’ Director Peter Yates Dies at 81

Four-time Oscar nominee also directed “Breaking Away” and “The Dresser”

Last Updated: January 10, 2011 @ 10:18 AM

British director Peter Yates died Sunday after a long illness. The four-time Oscar nominee was 81. 

In a four decade career, Yates' most enduring films focused on rebels and iconoclasts. Whether it was Steve McQueen's hard-charging detective in "Bullitt"; the Italian speaking cycling enthusiast in "Breaking Away"; or the gay actor's assistant in "The Dresser" — the classic Yates protagonist was never entirely comfortable operating within the system. 

Yet it is "Bullitt," with its shoot first and ask questions later protagonist, for which Yates will best be known. Arriving at the tail-end of the sixties, McQueen's Frank Bullitt initally appeared as a corrective to the decade's counterculture zeitgeist. However, his battles with political corruption and bureaucratic incompetence mirrored that era's larger distrust of authority.

It was the iconic car chase scene through the streets of San Francisco that made the film a box office sensation and heralded a new kind of onscreen action. 

Set in rural Indiana, "Breaking Away" focused on a group of blue-collar teenagers. It also proved that Yates, now firmly associated with action films, could operate in a more personal and small scale register. For his efforts, Yates was nominated for a Best Director Oscar and the film received five nominations in total.

Yates would score another Oscar nomination for helming the big-screen adaptation of the stage play "The Dresser." His adroit handling of the backstage drama drew critical raves. 

In his review of the film, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, "This is the best sort of drama, fascinating us on the surface with color and humor and esoteric detail, and then revealing the truth underneath."

Not that there weren't stinkers along the way. Though a box office hit, Yates' undersea adventure "The Deep" was critically derided — it's only lasting cultural impact being some memorable shots of Jacqueline Bisset in a wet t-shirt.

Yates, who got his start directing episodes of British television shows such as "The Saint," worked steadily throughout his career. Other films of note include the Robert Mitchum crime drama "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" and the Cher thriller "Suspect." His final theatrical release was 1995's coming-of-age drama "The Run of the Country." 

Yates is survived by his wife, Virginia Pope, a son and a daughter.