Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, who was famed for productions including the 1968 movie adaptation of Romeo And Juliet, has died in Rome at the age of 96.
Zeffirelli’s son Luciano said his father had died at home, adding he “had suffered for a while, but he left in a peaceful way”.
The director delighted audiences around the world with his romantic vision and often extravagant productions, most famously captured in his cinematic rendering of Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet – a hit with critics as well as at the box office – and the lavish TV miniseries Jesus Of Nazareth.
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, as well as plays for London and Italian stages.
Zeffirelli made it his mission to make culture accessible to the masses, often seeking inspiration in Shakespeare and other literary greats for his films, as well as producing operas aimed at TV audiences.
Claiming no favourites, Zeffirelli once likened himself to a sultan with a harem of three: film, theatre and opera.
He told the Associated Press in 2006: “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.”
From his illegitimate birth on the outskirts of Florence on February 12 1923, Zeffirelli rose to become one of Italy’s most prolific directors, working with such opera greats as Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and his beloved Maria Callas, as well Hollywood stars including 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 called on Zeffirelli to direct a few high-profile events.
But the director was best known outside Italy for his colourful, softly-focused romantic films. His version of Romeo And Juliet, starring Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, brought Shakespeare’s story to a new and appreciative generation.
His 1972 movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon told the life of St Francis in parables involving modern and 13th-century youth.
Zeffirelli directed Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in a 1967 adaptation of The Taming Of The Shrew.
He returned to Shakespeare in 1990, directing Hollywood star Mel Gibson in the title role of Hamlet.
One of his final films, 1999’s Tea With Mussolini, saw him work with Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith and Cher.