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Franco Zeffirelli, Director of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ Dies at 96

Franco Zeffirelli, the stylish and sometimes controversial theater, opera and film director, has died. He was 96.

Zeffirelli, who was Oscar-nominated for his 1968 version of “Romeo and Juliet,” died at his home in Rome at noon on Saturday, his son Luciano told the Associated Press. “He had suffered for a while, but he left in a peaceful way,” Luciano said.

While Zeffirelli was fond of making films with literary antecedents such as “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet,” “Taming of the Shrew” and “Jane Eyre,” his legacy as director of extravagant opera and theater productions is probably more consistent and long-lasting.

He directed, co-wrote and co-produced the 1966 production of “Taming of the Shrew,” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, one of the twice-married celebrated pair’s most successful co-starring assignments. Spirited and amusing, it paved the way for a youthful and sexy “Romeo and Juliet,” which was a major box office success in the U.S. in 1968.

Zeffirelli rose through the ranks as an assistant to his mentor Luchino Visconti, and his stage designs and eventually direction brought him to the great houses of the world: La Scala, the Met, etc. He directed Callas in “La Traviata” and major productions of “La Boheme,” “Carmen” and “Othello” (which he later filmed). He also directed legendary stage productions of “Hamlet” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”

Zeffirelli’s film output was less consistent, from the spirited and sensual “Romeo and Juliet” and playful “Taming of the Shrew” to the rather misshapen “Endless Love” and the unreleasable “Young Toscanini.”

He was politically the opposite of Visconti, with whom he had a relationship of several years. The openly gay Zeffirelli was also known for his socio-political declamations, particularly his anti-abortion, pro-Church stances.

After meeting Visconti while painting scenery for his production of “Tobacco Road,” he became an actor and stage manager in Visconti’s Morelli-Stoppa Co. Zeffirelli soon gave up acting to concentrate on working behind the scenes as an assistant director.

Through Visconti he met all the major playwrights and film directors of the day.

Zeffirelli assisted Visconti on 1948 film classic “La terra trema” and also his 1951 “Belissima” and 1954’s “Senso.” But he eventually broke through being seen as just another Visconti protege, and the stage became Zeffirelli’s mainstay for most of the next 20 years. In 1948 he assisted Salvador Dali on the Morelli-Stoppa production of “As You Like It.” He next designed Visconti’s famed Italian production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and his equally heralded “Troilus and Cressida,” staged in Florence’s Boboli Gardens. In 1951 he designed the Morelli-Stoppa “Three Sisters,” also to great acclaim.

Milan’s La Scala called on him in 1952 to design Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri,” and the following year he designed and directed “La Cenerentola.” His first major hit at La Scala was Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” in 1954.

He continued to work in many of Italy’s top opera houses over the next few years and traveled abroad to stage the 1956 Holland Festival production of “Falstaff.” In 1958 he staged the landmark Dallas Civic Opera production of “La Traviata” with Maria Callas in which the story was all told in flashback.

In 1959 he debuted at the Royal Opera House in England with fresh productions of “Lucia di Lammermoor” (launching diva Joan Sutherland), “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “I Pagliacci.”

A year later he scored his first theater success with a vivacious and youthful production of “Romeo and Juliet,” which he also designed at the Old Vic in London. “The Vic has done nothing better for a decade,” wrote critic Kenneth Tynan in the New York Herald Tribune.

In Dallas he continued to create one rich production after another, including Sutherland in “Alcina,” as well as “Don Giovanni” and “Daughter of the Regiment.” His production of “Othello” with John Gielgud in the lead was dubbed overproduced, but there was little complaint about his operatic “Falstaff” at Covent Garden.

Zeffirelli made his Broadway debut with a failed 1963 production of “The Lady of the Camellias” starring Susan Strasberg, but his “Aida” at La Scala with Leontyne Price and Carlo Bergonzi was praised and derided for its Cecil B. DeMille-like production. His “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” on the Italian stage was unanimously acclaimed, and his Old Vic “Hamlet” (in Italian starring Giorgio Albertazzi) was also an unqualified triumph. His 1977 “Filumena” with Joan Plowright was also well received.

Zeffirelli’s Metropolitan Opera debut with “Falstaff” in 1964 was highly praised, and he opened the new Met in Lincoln Center in 1966 with Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” He continued to grace the Met and other opera stages of the world well into the 1990s with visually sumptuous (sometimes overly so) but vibrant operatic productions, claiming that his aim was always to take the boredom out of the art form.

In 1965, Zeffirelli made his film debut with a filmed version of “La Boheme,” the first of several operas on film he would direct, including “La Traviata” in 1983 and “Otello” in 1986.

He also directed the documentary about the disastrous floods of Florence called “Florence — Days of Destruction,” drawing attention and funding to the great Renaissance city’s plight.

After a near-fatal car accident in 1969, Zeffirelli became a devout Catholic, a staunch defender of the Vatican and a follower of the charismatic Padre Pio. He was inspired to make a 1973 biography of Saint Francis of Assisi called “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” which later developed a cult following, and the five-part, eight-hour miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977), which has since become something of a perennial, especially in Italy.

His remake of “The Champ,” starring Jon Voight and Faye Dunaway, in 1979 did not please critics but had some box office muscle, though his 1981 “Endless Love” was not a hit with reviewers or audiences.

Opera adaptations aside, he directed the disastrous “Young Toscanini” in 1988, though his “Hamlet” starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close drew a mixed reception.

In 1996, he directed a moderately well-received adaptation of “Jane Eyre,” considered one of his more restrained filmic efforts.

His 1999 film “Tea With Mussolini,” a portrait of a group of American and English eccentrics in northern Italy before and during WWII, sported a fine cast (Cher, Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith and Lily Tomlin) but was dramatically underwhelming. The film was semiautobiographical; after his mother’s death when he was 6, he subsequently grew up under the auspices of the British expat community.

In 2002 he spun a fictional tale about a middle-aged Callas (played by Fanny Ardant) in “Callas Forever.”

Franco Zeffirelli Corsi was born in Florence, the child of an extra-marital affair between businessman Ottorini Corsi and fashion designer Adelaide Garosi. Zeffirelli studied at Florence’s art school Liceo Artistico and then, with his father prodding him in the direction of an architectural career, he studied at the School of Architecture at the U. of Florence. While there, he became director of the university’s theater company and directed and staged amateur opera productions in Siena.

In 1943, with Italy under German occupation, Zeffirelli fought with the partisans and developed a hatred of both Fascism and Communism. He was reportedly captured by the Facists and nearly killed before a remarkable save when his interrogator turned out to be a half brother he didn’t know.

Despite his religious zeal, Zeffirelli was was criticized by Catholics for what they considered blasphemous depictions in his films while also drawing the ire of gay activists upset with his support for church positions. After running for political office and losing in the ’80s, Zeffirelli was elected to the Italian Senate from the Sicilian city of Catania in 1994 as a member of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing Forza Italia party and held the post until 2001.

He published a film journal, “My Life of Jesus,” to accompany his religious miniseries, which addressed his theological side. In his later years Zeffirelli’s often intemperate remarks to the press about his religious beliefs. He was no less outspoken about his fellow artists, fond of sparring matches in the press.

In 2018, he was accused of sexual assault by actor Johnathon Schaech, who starred in his 1993 film “Sparrow.”

Late in life, he adopted two adult men who became his caretakers and survive him.

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