ROME — Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, who delighted audiences around the world with his romantic vision and extravagant productions, most famously captured in “Romeo and Juliet” and the miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth,” died Saturday at 96.
While Zeffirelli was most known for his films, his name was inextricably linked to the theater and opera. He produced classics for the world’s most famous opera houses, from Milan’s venerable La Scala to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and plays for London and Italian stages.
Zeffirelli’s son Luciano said his father died at home in Rome.
In his 2006 autobiography, Zeffirelli recounted how his mother attended her husband’s funeral pregnant with another man’s child. Unable to give the baby either her name or his father’s, she tried to name him Zeffiretti, after an aria in Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutti.” But a typographical error made it Zeffirelli.
He made it his mission to make culture accessible to the masses, often seeking inspiration in literary greats for his films, and producing operas for TV audiences. 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.
Born on Feb. 12, 1923, in the outskirts of Florence, Zeffirelli became one of Italy’s most prolific directors, working with such opera greats as Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Maria Callas, and Hollywood stars including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Mel Gibson, Cher and Judi Dench.
Throughout his career, Zeffirelli took risks. His screen success in America was a rarity among Italian filmmakers.
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.
But Zeffirelli was best known outside Italy for his colorful, softly focused romantic films. His 1968 “Romeo and Juliet” brought Shakespeare’s tale to a new generation, and his 1973 “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” told the life of St. Francis in parables.
“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 one of the most successful Shakespearian movies ever.
A year earlier, he directed Taylor and Burton in Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”
His 1977 made-for-television “Life of Jesus” became an instant classic with its portrayal of a Christ who seemed authentic and relevant. The film earned over $300 million worldwide.
But controversy was never far away. In 1978, he threatened to leave Italy because of attacks by some Italians who saw Zeffirelli as an exponent of Hollywood.
And when piqued by American criticism of his 1981 movie “Endless Love,” starring Brooke Shields, Zeffirelli said he might never make another film in the U.S. The movie, as he predicted, was a box office success.
Zeffirelli worked on a new staging of La Traviata, which will open the 2019 Opera Festival on June 21 at the Verona Arena.
“We’ll pay him a final tribute with one of his most loved operas,” artistic director Cecilia Gasdia said. “He’ll be with us.”