Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, celebrated for his extravagant opera productions and popular film versions of some of Shakespeare’s most beloved works, died at his home in Rome on Saturday morning. He was 96.
His son Luciano said Zeffirelli “suffered for a while” but that “he left in a peaceful way” after becoming ill with pneumonia last month.
Zeffirelli, born out of wedlock on the outskirts of Florence in February 1923, was one of Italy’s most prolific filmmakers and directors. He collaborated with luminaries across the entertainment industry, including opera legends Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Maria Callas and Hollywood stars like Mel Gibson, Cher and Judi Dench.
He skyrocketed to fame after directing celebrity couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the 1967 film “The Taming of the Shrew.” He followed it the next year with his widely celebrated production of “Romeo and Juilet,” which earned him an Oscar nomination.
The flick set box-office records in the United States, despite the fact that it starred two unknown teen actors – Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. It cost just $1.5 million to make, grossed $52 million and became the most popular film ever made of Shakespeare’s works.
Zeffirelli also produced classics for some of the world’s best-known opera houses, including Milan’s La Scala and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Plays directed by him were also featured on stages in London and Italy.
His New York staging of “La Boheme” was aired on national television in the United States in 1982.
Zeffirelli said he hoped to dedicate his life to bringing culture to the masses and making art more accessible to the public.
“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,” he told The Associated Press in an interview in 2006.
Florence Mayor Dario Nardella said in a statement Saturday that it was “an honor to have met” Zeffirelli and praised his “tireless passion for work and for his city.”
A message at the top of his Franco Zeffirelli Foundation website bid the iconic filmmaker farewell: “Ciao Maestro.”