Italian director Franco Zeffirelli dies at 96

Franco Zeffirelli, the Italian director who delighted audiences with his romantic vision and extravagant productions, most famously captured in his cinematic “Romeo and Juliet,” has died. He was 96. 

His son, Luciano, said his father died at home on Saturday. “He had suffered for a while, but he left in a peaceful way,” he said.

While Zeffirelli was most popularly known for his films, his name was also inextricably linked to the theater and opera. Showing great flexibility, he produced classics for the world’s most famous opera houses, from Milan’s venerable La Scala to the Metropolitan in New York, and plays for London and Italian stages.

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In a statement, Florence Mayor Dario Nardella said it was an honor to have met” Zeffirelli and remembered his “tireless passion for work and for his city.”

Zeffirelli made it his mission to make culture accessible to the masses, often seeking inspiration in Shakespeare and other literary greats for his films, and producing operas aimed at TV audiences. Claiming no favorites, Zeffirelli once likened himself to a sultan with a harem of three: film, theater and opera.

“I am not a film director. I am a director who uses different instruments to express his dreams and his stories — to make people dream,” Zeffirelli told The Associated Press in a 2006 interview.

Italy Zeffirelli Obit
This 1974 file photo shows Franco Zeffirelli in New York. Jerry Mosey / AP

From his out-of-wedlock birth on the outskirts of Florence on Feb. 12, 1923, Zeffirelli rose to be one of Italy’s most prolific directors, working with such opera greats as Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and his beloved Maria Callas, as well as Hollywood stars Elizabeth Taylor, Mel Gibson, Cher and Judi Dench.

Throughout his career, Zeffirelli took risks — and his audacity paid off at the box office. His screen success in America was a rarity among Italian filmmakers, and he prided himself on knowing the tastes of modern moviegoers.

He was one of the few Italian directors close to the Vatican, and the church turned to Zeffirelli’s theatrical touch for live telecasts of the 1978 papal installation and the 1983 Holy Year opening ceremonies in St. Peter’s Basilica. Former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi also tapped him to direct a few high-profile events.

But Zeffirelli was best known outside Italy for his colorful, softly-focused romantic films. His 1968 “Romeo and Juliet” brought Shakespeare”s story to a new and appreciative generation, and his “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” told the life of St. Francis in parables involving modern and 13th-century youth.

“Romeo and Juliet” set box-office records in the United States, though it was made with two unknown actors, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. The film, which cost $1.5 million, grossed $52 million and became the most successful Shakespearean movie ever.

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