The Italian film director Franco Zeffirellii, one of the most versatile artists of his generation, has died aged 96 after a long illness. His son Luciano said his father had died at home, adding he “had suffered for a while, but he left in a peaceful way”.
In a career spanning more than 60 years, Zeffirelli directed films, theatre and opera. Many of his stage productions became successes on screen – he became famous for rethinking “old war horses” in new ways. He directed Judi Dench on stage in Romeo and Juliet in 1960, a production that led to an Oscar-winning film adaptation in 1968.
He also directed stars including 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 among the supporting cast. He was also known for the lavish TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth.
Speaking in 2006, he said: “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 was born on 12 February, 1923, the illegitimate son of a Florentine textile merchant and a fashion designer. He was raised in Florence among English expatriates, an experience that he returned to in his 1999 film Tea with Mussolinii, a nostalgic piece for Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Cher and Lily Tomlin.
Zeffirelli was named by his mother after a line about “zeffiretti” (little breezes) in a Mozart aria. The two-time Oscar nominee would go on to become a prolific creator of opera himself, staging more than 120 in his career. His definitive Tosca ran for 40 years in repertory at London’s Royal Opera House and he enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with Maria Callas in some of the key roles in the operatic repertoire, notably Violetta in La Traviata.
He also served in the Italian senate for two terms as a member of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and received an honorary knighthood from the British government in 2004, being made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.