Franco Zeffirelli, Creator Of Lavish Productions On Screen And Stage, Dies At 96

Jun 15, 2019

Franco Zeffirelli once said that when the curtain comes up "you have to give the audience a big thing to look at."

The Italian filmmaker and opera director gave audiences plenty to look at — in his lavishly styled operas and his biblical and Shakespearean film adaptations.

Zeffirelli died Saturday in Rome after a long illness. His death was announced on the Foundation of Franco Zeffirelli website. He was 96.

Zeffirelli was born out of wedlock on Feb. 12, 1923 into a rigid Italian society that viewed indiscretions sternly. As a little boy, kids teased him for not knowing his father's last name. (Zeffiretti was the name his mother made up based on a Mozart aria; it means little breezes and was incorrectly transcribed as Zeffirelli.)

Zeffirelli's mother died when he was 6 and he lived briefly in an orphanage before relatives took him in. He credited his artistic growth to a British expatriate whose circle of friends he enshrined in the 1999 semi-autobiographical film Tea with Mussolini.

Zeffirelli told NPR in 1986 that he was nourished, in a sense, by his hometown's aesthetic glory. "I always used to play football in the cloister [of] San Marco ..." he said. "We were brought up with this kind of familiarity with the beauty of art."

Zeffirelli directs Judi Dench and John Stride in a production of Romeo and Juliet at The Old Vic in London in 1960.
Keystone Features / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Zeffirelli became a sought-after set designer and opera director after World War II. He worked with leading figures like Luchino Visconti and Maria Callas. But Zeffirelli said at the beginning, the music meant less than the spectacle.

"First of all, the visuals attracted me in opera," he said. "And later when I matured I found out that emotion is not only visual but is so complex and so complete like no other medium, you have everything there — the magic of everything, the best of everything."

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor starred as Petruchio and Kate in Zeffirelli's 1967 film The Taming of the Shrew.
AP

Even his critics admired Zeffirelli's sumptuously visualized operas, which often resembled Renaissance paintings come to life. A production of La Bohème in the early 1960s reportedly caused gasps of awe so loud, they drowned out the music.

Zeffirelli's fame surged after he directed celebrity couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the 1967 film The Taming of the Shrew. They encouraged him to follow it with Romeo and Juliet.

Zeffirelli daringly cast two unknown teenagers as Romeo and Juliet — the film was a massive international success and helped rescue then-faltering Paramount Pictures.

In 1981, Zeffirelli was irritated when his less successful film, Endless Love, suffered in comparison. "The story of Romeo and Juliet has been one of the blessings and curse of my entire career," he griped. "Whenever you touch adolescent love, automatically, even a child says, 'Well, that's Romeo and Juliet.'"

Romeo and Juliet would haunt Zeffirelli in other ways. Bruce Robinson, the young actor who played Benvolio later said Zeffirelli had sexually assaulted him. Robinson grew up to be a well-known screenwriter; he wrote The Killing Fields and a 1987 film called Withnail and I. It features a lecherous old man supposedly modeled on Zeffirelli. The director never responded to those allegations.

Zeffirelli was known for his lavish productions. Above, Andrea Gruber performs the title role in his production of Puccini's Turandot in New York in March 2007.
Mary Altaffer / AP

Zeffirelli found scandal again in 1988 when he described Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ as a product of "that Jewish cultural scum of Los Angeles which is always spoiling for a chance to attack the Christian world."

Zeffirelli was a deeply conservative Roman Catholic. He shared the Vatican's views on abortion and gay rights. For a few terms he represented a right wing party in the Italian Senate.

In 2006, he sparked a minor controversy when he told a newspaper he felt he'd suffered no harm as a child after being molested by a priest.

Wayne Koestenbaum, a professor at CUNY New York, says in many ways, Zeffirelli was a relic. Even his opulent operas, stuffed with enormous props, hundreds of extras and live animals have for years been critically mocked, and yet --

"I think if you want to have a sense of what grand opera means, you need to have seen at least one Zeffirelli production," Koestenbaum says.

Zeffirelli brought grand opera and Shakespeare up close. His productions dazzled, and they beat with an old-fashioned heart.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Franco Zeffirelli has died. He was one of the 20th century's most famous directors of opera. He also directed film adaptations of Bible stories and of Shakespeare, including "Romeo And Juliet" and "The Taming Of The Shrew." His death in Rome today came after a long illness, according to an announcement on his foundation's website. Franco Zeffirelli was 96 years old. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this look back on his work and a life that began with a birth out of wedlock.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Franco Zeffirelli born into a rigid, Italian society that viewed indiscretions sternly. As a little boy, Zeffirelli was teased for not knowing his father's real last name - his was made up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZEFFIRETTI LUSINGHIERI - EI STESSO VIEN. OH DEI (LIVE)")

SYLVIA MCNAIR: (Singing in foreign language).

ULABY: Zeffirelli was taken from a Mozart aria by his mother. It means little breezes and was wrongly transcribed as Zeffirelli. Zeffirelli's mother died when he was 6, and he lived briefly in an orphanage before relatives took him in. He credited his artistic growth to a British expatriate whose circle of friends he enshrined in the 1999 semi-autobiographical film "Tea With Mussolini."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TEA WITH MUSSOLINI")

JUDI DENCH: (As Arabella) Florence isn't just shiny cars and ice creams as little boys think. It's the human form divine. The body beautiful. And you - yes, you - could be part of that world to make, to create.

ULABY: Zeffirelli told NPR in 1986 that he was nourished in a sense by his hometown's aesthetic glory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

FRANCO ZEFFIRELLI: I always used to play football in the cloister San Marco, you know, (speaking Italian). We were brought up with this kind of familiarity with the beauty of art.

ULABY: Zeffirelli became a sought-after set designer and opera director after World War II. He worked with leading figures like Luchino Visconti and Maria Callas. But Zeffirelli said, at the beginning, the music meant less to him than the spectacle.

ZEFFIRELLI: First of all, the visuals attracted me in opera. Then later when I matured, I found that the emotion is not only visual, but it's so complex and so complete like no other medium. You have everything there. You have the magic of everything, the best of everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA BOHEME: ACT I: O SOAVE FANCIULLA")

LUCIANO FANCIULLA: (Singing in foreign language).

ULABY: Even his critics admired Zeffirelli's sumptuously visualized operas, which often resembled Renaissance paintings come to life. A production of "La Boheme" in the early '60s reportedly caused gasps of awe so loud it drowned out the music. Zeffirelli also filmed the opera.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA BOHEME: ACT I: O SOAVE FANCIULLA")

FANCIULLA: (Singing in foreign language).

ULABY: Zeffirelli's fame surged after he directed celebrity couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the 1967 film "The Taming Of The Shrew." They encouraged him to follow it with "Romeo And Juliet." Zeffirelli daringly casted two unknown teenagers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROMEO AND JULIET")

LEONARD WHITING: (As Romeo Montague) I am afeard being in night. All this is but a dream. Too flattering-sweet to be substantial.

OLIVIA HUSSEY: (As Juliet Capulet) Three words, dear Romeo and good night indeed. If that thy bent of love be honorable...

WHITING: (As Romeo Montague) Yes.

HUSSEY: (As Juliet Capulet) ...Thy purpose marriage. Send me word tomorrow by one that I'll procure to come to thee.

ULABY: "Romeo And Juliet" was a massive international success and helped rescue then-faltering Paramount Pictures. In 1981, Zeffirelli was irritated when his less successful film "Endless Love" suffered in comparison.

ZEFFIRELLI: The story of "Romeo And Juliet," which has been one blessing and curse of my entire career, whenever you touch the adolescent love, automatically, even a child says, well, that's "Romeo And Juliet."

ULABY: "Romeo And Juliet" would haunt severally in other ways. The young actor who played Benvolio later said Zeffirelli sexually assaulted him. Bruce Robinson grew up to become a well-known screenwriter. He wrote "The Killing Fields" and a 1987 film called "Withnail And I." It features a lecherous old man supposedly modeled on Zeffirelli. Zeffirelli never responded to those allegations, but the director created scandal on his own.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In Italy, a storm of protest is raging over the inclusion of director Martin Scorsese's film "The Last Temptation Of Christ" at the Venice Film Festival.

ULABY: In that 1988 NPR broadcast, Sylvia Poggioli reported on Zeffirelli's response to "The Last Temptation Of Christ."

(SOUNDBITE ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: He described it as a product of, quote, "that Jewish cultural scum of Los Angeles which is always spoiling for a chance to attack the Christian world."

ULABY: Zeffirelli was a deeply conservative Roman Catholic. He shared the Vatican's views on abortion and gay rights. For a few terms, he represented a right-wing party in the Italian Senate. In 2006, he sparked a minor controversy when he told a newspaper he felt he'd suffered no harm as a child after being molested by a priest.

Wayne Koestenbaum is a professor at CUNY New York who says in many ways Zeffirelli was a relic. Even his opulent operas stuffed with hundreds of extras and live animals have for years been critically mocked.

WAYNE KOESTENBAUM: Whatever. I think that if you want to have a sense of what grand opera means, you need to have seen at least one Zeffirelli production.

ULABY: Koestenbaum says Zeffirelli made that easy. He brought grand opera and Shakespeare up close. His productions dazzled, and they beat with an old-fashioned heart.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.