Italian director Franco Zeffirelli dies, aged 96

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Franco Zeffirelli "died serenely after a long illness, which had worsened these last months", Italian media said, citing family members. PHOTO: AFP

ROME (AFP, NYTIMES) - Italian film and opera legend Franco Zeffirelli died Saturday (June 15) at the age of 96 at his home in Rome, local media reported.

The director of movies and operas "died serenely after a long illness, which had worsened these last months", Italian media said, citing family members.

"I never wanted this day to come. Franco Zeffirelli departed this morning. One of the greatest men in the world of culture. We join in the grief of his loved ones. Goodbye, dear Master, Florence will never forget you," tweeted Dario Nardella, the mayor of Florence, where Zeffirelli was born.

A director, screenwriter, and producer, Zeffirelli has about 20 feature films to his name.

Beginning with his 1964 staging of Verdi's "Falstaff," his productions drew consistently large audiences to the Metropolitan Opera in New York over the next 40 years.

His staging with Maria Callas of Verdi's "La Traviata" in Dallas in 1958 and Giacomo Puccini's "Tosca" at Covent Garden in London in 1962 "remain touchstones for opera aficionados and Callas cultists," Brooks Peters wrote in a profile of Zeffirelli in Opera News in 2002.

Internationally, he is best known for having directed the 1968 film version of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet", for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.

He also borrowed from Shakespeare for adaptations of "Hamlet" in 1992 with Mel Gibson and Glenn Close, and "The Taming of the Shrew" in 1967 with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

He directed more than 30 plays and operas.

Born the son of a merchant on February 12, 1923, Zeffirelli was unable to take the name of either parent, both of whom were married to other people.

His mother gave him the surname "Zeffiretti' which means "little breeze" but, the story goes, it was misspelt on his birth certificate.

A homosexual and Catholic, Zeffirelli opposed an increasingly liberal sexual climate and came out against recognition of gay couples.

Zeffirelli also tried his hand at politics. From 1994 to 2001 he was an MP in Italy's upper house for the centre-right Forza Italia party of tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, whom he defended amid escalating stories about the prime minister's sex antics.

But it is for his work as a film director that Zeffirelli will be best remembered.

Film critic Roger Ebert called his "Romeo and Juliet", starring a 15-year-old Olivia Hussey, "the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made".

His other big films include "Brother Sun, Sister Moon", based on the life of Saint Francis of Assisi and, returning to Shakespeare as he did often, "The Taming of the Shrew", in 1968 starred the famously tempestuous Hollywood couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

On the small screen, Zeffirelli put an all-star cast together for the 1977 British-Italian television miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth", the cast of which reads like a who's-who of 1970s acting talent, including Laurence Olivier, Rod Steiger, Anthony Quinn, Anne Bancroft, Claudia Cardinale and Christopher Plummer.

Another great love was opera, with films such as "Callas Forever" (2002), "Pagliacci" (1981) and "La Bohème" (2008), often working in myriad roles, including opera director and production and costume designer. "The word of culture, and of cinema weeps today at the death of the maestro Franco Zeffirelli, a genius of our times, I love his films," said Italian Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli.

Zeffirelli received an honorary knighthood from Britain in 2004 for his "valuable services to British performing arts".

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