Tony Earnshaw: To the top with a Bullitt, but director's favourite was made in Yorkshire

Easily one of the most versatile filmmakers Britain has produced, Peter Yates, who has died aged 81, honed his directing skills in television and as an assistant on a range of early '60s features before he experienced the once-in-a-lifetime Hollywood springboard that sent his career into orbit.

The story goes that Steve McQueen was so impressed by the car chase sequence in Yates's 1967 thriller Robbery that he personally requested the director's services on the film that was to become Bullitt. The film led, indirectly, to a string of high-profile American pictures over the next ten years with stars as diverse as Dustin Hoffman (John and Mary), Robert Redford (The Hot Rock), Peter O'Toole (Murphy's War), Raquel Welch (Mother, Jugs and Speed) and Nick Nolte (The Deep). In a career spanning more than 40 years, Peter Yates worked in Europe and America, equally comfortable in studio blockbusters and small independent pictures, or television.

He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director twice in four years – for the 1979 cycling drama Breaking Away and for the adaptation of Sir Ronald Harwood's stage smash The Dresser, in 1983, which also garnered nominations for Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay as the bickering old actor and his effete dresser.

It was to The Dresser that Yates gravitated when asked for thoughts on his favourite movie. He remained forever grateful to McQueen for giving him an entre into Hollywood with Bullitt but he was far more interested in character. In essence he was a man of the theatre, emerging from stage work into movies via people like Shipley-born Tony Richardson into a very busy film career in the '60s and '70s that saw him enjoying a hugely versatile career.

It was the choice to diversify that led some lazy commentators to label him a journeyman director. Yates never complained. He helmed everything from pop musicals to war dramas, with an eclectic cast list that included Cliff Richard and Robert Mitchum. Yet he always came back to The Dresser. The film was partly filmed in Yorkshire with key interiors shot at Bradford's Alhambra Theatre. It was his defining moment and focused on men, not machines. If Bullitt gave him his iconic moment in cinema, then The Dresser was the film that defined him.

He received a mini retrospective of his work at Bradford Film Festival in 2003. It was his first time back in Yorkshire since filming The Dresser with Finney and Courtenay and the world had changed. He made his final movie that same year and retired when illness prevented him working. He was a modest man, much underrated during his lifetime. The films live on: one a pulse-pounding cop thriller, the other a marvellous memento mori of life on the boards.

There were others in between, but those are the ones that count.