Franco Zeffirelli Dies: Famed Director Of Shakespearean Drama Was 96

Franco Zeffirelli, the Italian director whose visionary interpretation of Romeo and Juliet was nominated for an Academy Award, has died. He was 96 and passed at his residence in Rome.

Zeffirelli was prolific in film, theater and opera over his long career, and was known for his epic scale in his productions. He staged more than 120 operas in his career.

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Gianfranco Zeffirelli was born on February 12, 1923 on the outskirts of Florence. He was educated at the Academia di Belle Arti in Florence as an architect, but claimed later that after seeing Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, he decided on a new direction and turned to theater.

After some early acting success, Zeffirelli worked as a set designer at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence. There he met director Luchino Visconti, who became his mentor and passed along his love of opera to his young charge.

Zeffirelli devoted his time to theater and opera for most of the 1950s and early 1960s, working as a costume and set designer, and directing theater productions ranging from Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams at Europe’s leading venues.

His 1968 film Romeo and Juliet, for which he wrote the screenplay and directed, starred teenagers Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, and became instantly notorious for showing Hussey topless. The modern update was a hit for Paramount, and brought Shakespeare’s classic drama to a new generation. It was nominated for Best Picture and won Oscars for cinematography and costume design.

Shakespeare became Zeffirelli’s defining moments. He also wrote and directed an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and in 1990 brought out a new version of Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close ($20.7M at the domestic box office).

The influence of his opera productions infused Zeffirelli’s film stylings, which were grand and offered modern takes on the traditional.

Among his other notable works were The Champ (1979), a reinterpretation of a classic boxing movie starring Jon Voight, Faye Dunaway and Ricky Schroder, and Endless Love (1981) which marked the cinematic debut of Tom Cruise, joined by Brooke Shields. The film received an X rating.

Zeffirelli’s reach was more than shock, though. He was also behind several religious epics, including Brother Sun, Sister Moon, about the life of St. Francis of Assisi, and the mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (with Hussey playing the Virgin Mary).

Opera was also part of his film oeuvre. He directed La Traviata (1982) and Otello (1986), both starring Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, the former earning an Oscar nod for art direction-set decoration.

Survivors include two adopted sons. No memorial plans have been announced.

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