In Memoriam

Peter Yates: The End?

Remembering the great director of Bullitt and Breaking Away -- and the movie deal he didn't close.

By 2.11.11

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The passing of transatlantic film director Peter Yates teleported me back to a surreal time when one word from him -- even a nod -- might have jump started what I hoped to be my brilliant career as an A-List Hollywood producer. As the poet said (Damon Runyon actually), "A Story Goes With It."

This one begins in the late 1960s on the wrong end of Sunset Boulevard at the then down-at-heels Chateau Marmont Hotel. (Think Barton Fink.) And in the pre-Balasz lobby of that legendary Old Hollywood landmark, I ran into The Sweet Smell of Success director Sandy (Alexander) MacKendrick who introduced me to his fellow Brit, Peter Yates. ("Brit" because no Glaswegian -- like Sandy -- would ever choose to be taken for a Sassenach -- like Peter.)

With his first American film Bullitt both a box office and critical smash (and which made Steve McQueen a marquee name) Yates looked to be a pre-Cameron "King of the world." Witness his films that followed: John and Mary, an insider's peek at a new New York social phenomenon. Then Friends of Eddie Coyle, the dissection of Boston's Irish mob. And who can forget Breaking Away, the ultimate dramedy of Town & Gown conflict in the American Heartland.

Circumstances for me were a little different. Awhile back I had persecuted Walker Percy into virtually giving me Rights to his novel The Moviegoer. But after that, per my attempts to put together a "package," I was getting nowhere in La La Land.

Even industry vets trying to help (Ralph Meeker, Sam Peckinpah) felt constrained to tell me that what I knew about Hollywood could fit on the head of a pin. So I was about ready to abort the mission and get back to documentaries: a medium I understood; and one in which I had enjoyed some success.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, stood TheManWho could "make it happen." This because his "character & auto-centric" Bullitt had turned the musty old police procedural on its tin ear; and whose San Francisco car chase elevated a Keystone Kops standby to the shape of things to come.

More importantly, in a town where Money Talks, Bullitt had upped only yesterday's "Peter WHO?" to the stratosphere of "BANK-able director." There was even talk that Yates might score that elusive Hollywood Holy Grail: a "3PD+CC4DD" (Three Picture Deal with pre-approved Budget; plus Control on Domestic Distribution).

Moreover, in a place where "Nobody reads," Yates -- intrigued by The Moviegoer's title, had actually read -- and liked -- the novel. Thinking Eureka, much to Sandy's embarrassment, I pounced: "Mr. Yates, I own Rights to THE MOVIEGOER (a slight résumé inflation since all Walker would part with was an Option) and I want YOU to direct." Then the audio: sound of one hand clapping. Echoing the Author's own gloomy assessment, Yates pronounced Percy's masterpiece "un-filmable," a new word on me, one I immediately detested. So much for instant gratification. So I stormed out. After all, what did he know?

Cut to noon of the following day. INT: the late, lamented Cock & Bull on Sunset. Ambiance at this popular watering hole for Tinsel Town Brits (whose lunch bunch resembled a casting call for UK ex-pats for the film version of Evelyn Waugh's Hollywood novel The Loved One) fell somewhere between early Fleet Street and late Saint James's Square. And there he was. Again. Peter Yates. This time with another Englishman, Philip Leacock, whose TV western Gunsmoke had struck Hollywood gold. Taking this incredible encore for serendipity, and quickly apologizing for yesterday's huffy departure from the Chateau, I volleyed with: "Mr. Yates, I REALLY want YOU to direct THE MOVIEGOER."

They say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Well Q.E.D. Because Yates's response was "Don't be a loon, old boy. Terrific book and that but no film there. All 'Interior Monologue.' Won't work on screen. But do call me 'Peter.'"

And as far as The Moviegoer went, that was that. Learning that I lived in Manhattan, he talked of his explorations in a New York "singles bar," mise en scène of John and Mary.

This detour into pop sociology in the guise of romantic comedy featured the famous Mia Farrow/Dustin Hoffman "hookup" (long before that dreadful word wormed its way into the language).

After that we stayed in touch to some extent -- usually when he was on location in New York. (Piffle like The Hot Rock; meatier fare like Eyewitness. But our best visit was in Boston where Yates had cast my old drinking buddy Bob Mitchum in Friends of Eddie Coyle's title role. Following Bullitt, this brilliant noir (far and away superior to Martin Scorsese's better known but way over-hyped The Departed) represents the second part of Peter Yates's American triptych -- with his matchless Breaking Away obviously the third panel. With these extraordinary films, he validated his claim to explicator of our culture. Nobody but nobody (native or foreign born) ever "got" America better than this Englishman abroad.

All of which calls into question the lack of respect and/or appreciation for Yates among cinéastes -- a fact which bothered his friends more than himself. (He called this lot "Cine-asses.") Despite placing #81 in a recent IMDB list of "The 250 Greatest Directors," Yates commands little respect. Most damaging was the quote from David Thomson whose indelible charge that Yates had "done nothing more profound than send hubcaps careering around corners" appeared in most of the obits. And in view of the renown of its perp, this lethal quote will no doubt continue to resonate at collegiate film schools.

So those still smarting at this cavalier take might do well to recall Some Like It Hot's Joe E. Brown's parting shot: "Nobody's perfect"; and that even the best (like Thomson) can miss by a country mile. Check his praise for The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman's travesty of Raymond Chandler: notably, his "star-casting" of Elliott Gould (by all accounts a fine fellow and quite good in other roles like Big Greenie in Warren Beatty's Bugsy). No offense, but frankly, Elliott Gould is to Philip Marlowe as Adam Sandler is to Longfellow Deeds.

In this Age of Auteur, the Editorial Director of this magazine attributes the chorus of faint praise to Yates's versatility. Like Hollywood helmers of old (Wellman, Wilder, Wyler) he could do anything. Usually -- not always -- well. Consider this eclectic filmography: a mixed bag; and all of which reportedly came in On Time/Under Budget:

• Musical? Summer Holiday with Cliff Richard -- English Elvis goes Continental.

• True crime? Robbery with Stanley Baker -- Pussy Cat wannabe pulls off Crime of Century.

• Comedy? Mother, Jugs & Speed with Raquel Welch -- Bill Cosby actually funny for a change.

• Action Adventure? Murphy's War -- Over the Waves (& Hill) Peter O'Toole comes out on top. Again.

• SciFinery? Krull with Lysette Anthony -- JAPrincess saved from faith worse than death.

• Horror? The Deep with Jackie Bissett -- Bra-less, brainless, British bimbo in wet Tee but "No Esther Williams" (i.e. "Wet She Was Great").

To make it up to the memory of Peter, it behooves the British Embassy's current Culture spy to schedule a Yates Festival; perhaps with Telegraph critic (and Yates fan) David Gritten as EmCee. For openers, what about Suspect, Washington oriented but shot in Toronto. Would you believe Cher for the Defense? (U better believe it.) A suitable venue might be Georgetown. If the old Biograph was good enough for John Waters, its NW DC successor is good enough for Peter Yates.

But even a Georgetown art house could not re-create the cheery "birther" who disclosed the actual surname of Breaking Away's lead whose fondest hope was to pass for Italian. (Dennis "Christopher," "Corelli.")

Nor could it shazam the tongue-in-chic director who urged a Bill Buckley accent upon Robert Vaughn, the Bullitt nemesis of Steve McQueen. (Speaking of: After he made McQueen a star who could demand "director approval," the newly famous actor never asked for Yates again. But look at it this way: What had he done for him lately?)

The best of "Late Yates" can be summed up in two films. There was The Dresser, an homage to Lear featuring Tom Courtenay and Peter's old friend Albert Finney as has been actor trying to carry on during the London Blitz. Finally, there was The Run of the Country, an underrated tale of shanty Irish Capulets and Montagus along the Ulster border; and which was to be Yates's final theatrical release.

My own last suggestion to Peter Yates was a remake of The Ruling Class (the one penned by Peter Barnes -- not those by Angelo Codevilla or Lewis Lapham). And I liked Steve Breaking Way screenwriter Tesich's script idea: a variation on his Four Friends: this one to be set in (what became the former) Yugoslavia; and whose three boyhood friends would be Serb, Croat, and Bosnian. At the time of Steve's untimely death, I believe that the late Arthur Penn may have been considering it.

As it happened The Moviegoer never got made. Not by me nor anyone else. As for Yates, his last bow was a made-for-TV version of John Knowles's novel A Separate Peace. Sometime before, ironically, and according to Wilfrid Sheed, Peter told Knowles that his book, fine as it was, was un-filmable.

See. Just like I said: What did He know?

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About the Author

Writer's block permitting, journalist and filmmaker Noel E. Parmentel Jr. is assembling a collection of his essays tentatively titled American Studies.