Legendary director Zeffirelli dies at 96

Legendary director Zeffirelli dies at 96

Franco Zeffirelli, the Italian director of operas, films and television, has died in Rome aged 96. 

In a career spanning more than 60 years, many of Zeffirelli’s stage productions became successes on screen. 

He directed Judi Dench on stage in Romeo and Juliet in 1960, which led to the Oscar-winning 1968 film adaptation.

Although gay, Zeffirelli remained in the closet although he did not conceal his infatuation with beautiful young men.

Zeffirelli attended a Roman Catholic school in Florence where he said he was sexually assaulted by a priest. When the Second World War broke out, he joined the partisans and twice escaped death by firing squad. He later worked as an interpreter for the Scots Guards. 

After the war he abandoned plans to train as an architect and worked as a radio actor.

He also served in the Italian senate for two terms as a member of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s populist Forza Italia.  

Born in 1923, he directed Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the 1967 film Taming of the Shrew and, later, Mel Gibson in 1990’s Hamlet with Glenn Close and Helena Bonham Carter.

The director was raised in Florence among British and US expatriates, an experience that he returned to in his 1999 movie Tea with Mussolini with Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Cher and Lily Tomlin coping with Nazi occupation.

Zeffirelli reportedly helped to inspire Withnail & I. When its writer-director Bruce Robinson was a young actor playing Benvolio in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, he said the director’s heavy-handed attention was constant. The director was purportedly transformed into the very English Uncle Monty; a loveable, bumbling homosexual sex-pest.

He was associated with his romantic vision and extravagant productions, including the mini-series Jesus of Nazareth.

Zeffirelli also produced operas for the world’s most famous houses, including Milan’s La Scala and the Metropolitan in New York.

The director tried to make high-culture accessible to the masses, often seeking inspiration in Shakespeare and other literary masters or producing operas aimed at wider television audiences.

“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 said in 2006.


Franco Zeffirelli’s La Traviata in Verona. Picture credit: Wikimedia 




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