Breaking Through

Peter Yates (1929 - 2011)

by Bill Gibron

11 January 2011

There was much more to this Englishman than wheels on pavement. Along with a group of still influential filmmakers, he was part of a movement that redefined film.

For a brief decade long run, Englishman Peter Yates was a player in the burgeoning post-modern film movement. Alongside names like Coppola and Scorsese, Spielberg and Friedkin, the Hampshire-born journeyman tapped into the no nonsense neo-realism of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, capping off his creative mainspring with a run of titles that included John and Mary, Murphy’s War, The Hot Rock, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and perhaps most importantly, Steve McQueen’s seminal Bullitt. By the time he was mimicking George Lucas for his own inept Star Wars clone - the camp-tastic Krull - he had four Oscar nominations and a reputation as a thoughtful, important artist. By the ‘90s, he was all but forgotten.

It’s a standard story, one made all the more meaningful by Yates’ death on 9 January 2011. After growing up the son of an army officer, he entered the English boarding school system, eventually graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He then tramped around as an actor, director, and stage manager before eventually finding his way into film. There, he worked in the dubbing department before finally winning jobs as an assistant director, most famously for the iconic Tony Richardson (Tom Jones). In 1962, he stepped behind the lens to helm a few episodes of the UK series The Saint. A kitschy starring vehicle for pop sensation Cliff Richard (1963’s Summer Holiday) marked his major motion picture debut.
From that point on, Yates worked steadily, balancing time between the small screen (Patrick McGoohan’s influential Danger Man) and large (One Way Pendulum). In 1967, he took on a highly fictionalized version of the modern Great Train Robbery and turned it into an international sensation. It was even more influential in Yates’ home country, determining the type and temperament of the British crime film/TV series for several decades. Robbery would also be acknowledged by Hollywood when it came looking for someone to handle superstar Steve McQueen’s next film. The story of a hardnosed cop keeping a key witness under protective custody, it too would become a highly referenced and mimicked movie.

By today’s action movie standards, Bullitt still impresses. From its formidable casting and muscle car cool to the set-piece chase through the hill-laden streets of San Francisco, it ushered in a new kind of stunt spectacle, a skillful combination of meticulously choreographed and combined shots and an off the cuff documentary approach that would become the norm in the following decade. It would be picked up by directors as diverse as William Friedkin (the famous French Connection chase) and Steven Spielberg (who made his entire ‘80s career out of channeling Yates’ puzzle box designs). In 2007, the United States added Bullitt to its National Film Directory, cementing the film’s reputation as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” work.

With its eventual Oscar win for Best Editing and its considered counterculture cool, the McQueen milestone meant that Yates could have his pick of projects and performers. He next tackled a sparse romantic drama entitled John and Mary, starring the then rising A-listers Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow. He then gave Peter O’Toole one of his best roles in 1971’s Murphy’s War. William Goldman’s cheeky heist flick, The Hot Rock would follow, providing Yates with even more commercial and cultural clout. He then followed that up with the master crime film The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Featuring excellent work from Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle, and Richard Jordan, it is now considered one of the filmic blueprints for the ‘70s gritty gangster genre.

Handpicked to work on Barbra Streisand’s next comedy, a working class farce called For Pete’s Sake, Yates proved he could handle humor with style and panache. It was a mindset that carried over to the decidedly darker LA ambulance driver effort with Bill Cosby, Rachel Welch, and Harvey Keitel, Mother, Jugs, and Speed. When Tinseltown wanted someone who could tackle the then hot Peter Benchley’s post-Jaws bestseller The Deep, Yates was tapped. Another smash success and the filmmaker could, again, choose any project he wanted. The decision would prove prophetic.

Based partially on his experiences as a Yugoslavian teen immigrating to America at age 14 and his eventual college days at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, Steven Teisch translated his time as an alternate rider in the local Little 500 bike race into a screenplay entitled Breaking Away. With its themes of small town struggles and a climatic competition, Yates was in his element. He took Teisch’s marvelous work (he would win an Oscar for the script) and magnified it, finding the perfect balance between inspiration and exacting everyday detail. It would also mark Yates’ first formal recognition from the industry as well. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, an honor he would lose to Robert Benton for Kramer vs. Kramer.

But instead of being a protractor of his already vaunted career, Breaking Away became a pinnacle. Yates would continue to work, the early ‘80s seeing more success (Eyewitness, Oscar noms for The Dresser). Then Krull came along and tarnished some of his professional patina. With its cobbled together collection of wannabe Star Wars structures and random sword and sorcery cliches, it failed to ignite a fantasy-hungry audience. Before long, Yates was making small films (Eleni, Year of the Comet) and overseeing lesser motion picture projects (Tom Sellick’s An Innocent Man, the aged/adolescent odd couple dramedy Roommates). A hackneyed haunted townhouse comedy featuring James Spader - Curtain Call - would be his final theatrical release.

From there, the now 70-something settled into semi-retirement. In 2000, he crafted a clever adaptation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote for television. It famously featured John Lithgow as the title character with British butterball Bob Hoskins as his faithful sidekick Sancho Panza. He then took on John Knowles classic coming of age tale A Separate Peace, allowing a now much older Yates to revisit his English boarding school roots. While something called The Girl in Melanie Klein was announced for last year, the director’s failing health finally caught up with him. After an extended illness, he finally passed away, leaving behind a collective catalog of movies that would help shape the language of film for the next forty years.

Perhaps because of Bullitt and its lingering legacy, or a lack of contemporary perspective, Yates seems stuck in one of two tributes - great car chase or great bike races. But there was much more to this Englishman than wheels on pavement. Along with a group of still influential filmmakers, he was part of a movement that redefined film. In fairness, his own moviemaking mythos should be reconfigured as well.

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