Franco Zeffirelli

Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli KBE, Grande Ufficiale OMRI (12 February 1923 – 15 June 2019),[1] commonly known as Franco Zeffirelli (Italian pronunciation: [ˈfraŋko ddzeffiˈrɛlli]), was an Italian director and producer of operas, films and television. He was also a senator from 1994 until 2001 for the Italian centre-right Forza Italia party.

Franco Zeffirelli

Zeffirelli in 2008
Member of the Senate of the Republic
In office
21 April 1994  29 May 2001
Personal details
Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli

(1923-02-12)12 February 1923
Florence, Tuscany, Italy
Died15 June 2019(2019-06-15) (aged 96)
Rome, Italy
Political partyChristian Democracy (until 1994)
Forza Italia (1994–2001)
Alma materAcademy of Fine Arts of Florence
  • Film director
  • opera director
  • politician
Military service
Branch/serviceBritish Army
Years of service1942–1945
Unit24th Guards Brigade
Battles/warsWorld War II

Some of his operatic designs and productions have become worldwide classics.[2][3][4][5]

He was also known for several of the movies he directed, especially the 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet, for which he received an Academy Award nomination. His 1967 version of The Taming of the Shrew with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton remains the best-known film adaptation of that play as well. His miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977) won both national and international acclaim and is still frequently shown on Christmas and Easter in many countries.

A Grande Ufficiale OMRI of the Italian Republic since 1977, Zeffirelli also received an honorary British knighthood in 2004 when he was created a KBE.[6] He was awarded the Premio Colosseo in 2009 by the city of Rome.

Early life

Zeffirelli was born Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli in the outskirts of Florence, Tuscany, Italy. He was the result of an affair between Florentine Alaide Garosi, a fashion designer, and Ottorino Corsi, a wool and silk dealer from Vinci. Since both were married, Alaide was unable to use her surname or Corsi's for her child. She came up with "Zeffiretti", which are the "little breezes" mentioned in Mozart's opera Idomeneo, of which she was quite fond. However, it was misspelled in the register and became Zeffirelli.[7] When he was six years old, his mother died and he subsequently grew up under the auspices of the English expatriate community and was particularly involved with the so-called Scorpioni, who inspired his semi-autobiographical film Tea with Mussolini (1999).

Italian researchers found that Zeffirelli was one of a handful of living people traceably consanguineous with Leonardo da Vinci. He was a descendant of one of da Vinci's siblings.[8]

Zeffirelli graduated from the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze in 1941 and, following his father's advice, entered the University of Florence to study art and architecture.[9] After World War II broke out, he fought as a partisan, before he met up with British soldiers of the 1st Scots Guards and became their interpreter. After the war, he re-entered the University of Florence to continue his studies, but when he saw Laurence Olivier's Henry V in 1945, he directed his attention toward theatre instead.

While working for a scenic painter in Florence, he was introduced to and hired by Luchino Visconti, who made him assistant director for the film La Terra trema, which was released in 1948. Visconti's methods had a deep impact upon Zeffirelli's later work.[10] He also worked with directors such as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. In the 1960s, he made his name designing and directing his own plays in London and New York City and soon transferred his ideas to cinema.



Zeffirelli's first film as director was a version of The Taming of the Shrew (1967), originally intended for Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni but finally featuring the Hollywood stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in their stead. Taylor and Burton helped fund production and took a percentage of the profits rather than their normal salaries.

While editing The Taming of the Shrew, Zeffirelli's native Florence was devastated by floods. A month later, he released a short documentary, entitled Florence: Days of Destruction, to raise funds for the disaster appeal.[11]

Zeffirelli's major breakthrough came the year after, when he presented two teenagers as Romeo and Juliet (1968). The movie is still immensely popular and was for many years the standard adaptation of the play shown to students. It also made Zeffirelli a household name – no other subsequent work by him had the immediate impact of Romeo and Juliet.

The film earned $14.5 million in domestic rentals at the North American box office during 1969.[12] It was re-released in 1973 and earned $1.7 million in rentals.[13]

Film critic Roger Ebert, for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote: "I believe Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet is the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made".[14]

After two successful film adaptations of Shakespeare, Zeffirelli went on to religious themes, first with a film about the life of St. Francis of Assisi titled Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), then his extended mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977) with an all-star cast. The latter was a major success in the ratings and has been shown regularly on television in the years since.

He moved on to contemporary themes with a remake of the boxing picture The Champ (1979) and the critically panned Endless Love (1981). In the 1980s, he made a series of successful films adapting opera to the screen, with such stars as Plácido Domingo, Teresa Stratas, Juan Pons and Katia Ricciarelli. He returned to Shakespeare with Hamlet (1990), casting the then–action hero Mel Gibson in the lead role. His 1996 adaptation of the Charlotte Brontë novel Jane Eyre was a critical success.

Zeffirelli frequently cast unknown actors in major roles; however, his male leads have rarely gone on to stardom or even a sustained acting career. Leonard Whiting (Romeo in Romeo and Juliet), Graham Faulkner (St. Francis in Brother Sun, Sister Moon) and Martin Hewitt (David Axelrod in Endless Love) all left the film business. The female leads in those films (Olivia Hussey and Brooke Shields) have attained far greater success in the industry.


Zeffirelli was a major director of opera productions from the 1950s on in Italy and elsewhere in Europe as well as the United States. He began his career in the theatre as assistant to Luchino Visconti. Then he tried his hand at scenography. His first work as a director was buffo operas by Gioachino Rossini. He became a friend of Maria Callas and they worked together on a La traviata in Dallas, Texas, in 1958. Of particular note is his 1964 Royal Opera House production of Tosca with Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi. In the same year, he created Callas' last Norma at the Paris Opera. Zeffirelli also collaborated often with Dame Joan Sutherland, designing and directing her performances of Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor in 1959. Over the years he created several productions for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, including La bohème, Tosca, Turandot and Don Giovanni.


In 1996, he was awarded an honorary degree for services to the arts by the University of Kent at a graduation ceremony held in Canterbury Cathedral. In 1999, he received the Crystal Globe award for outstanding artistic contribution to world cinema at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. In November 2004, he was awarded an honorary knighthood by the United Kingdom.[15]


Zeffirelli received criticism from religious groups for what they call the blasphemous representation of biblical figures in his films.[16] Contrariwise, Zeffirelli roused accusations of antisemitism for describing 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."[17]

Zeffirelli was a highly conservative Roman Catholic,[17] and served two terms in the Italian senate as a member of Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia party.[18] He was criticized by members of the gay community for publicly backing the Roman Catholic Church's position on homosexuality[16][17][18] and by others for support of the church's position on abortion,[17][18] which extended to calling for capital punishment for women who had terminated a pregnancy.[18]

He roused controversy again when he told a newspaper in 2006 that he had not suffered any harm from sexual abuse by a priest as a child.[17]

Personal life

In 1996, Zeffirelli came out as gay, but thereafter preferred to be discreet about his personal life.[19] Zeffirelli said that he considered himself "homosexual" rather than gay, as he felt the term "gay" was less elegant.[20] Zeffirelli adopted two adult sons, men with whom he had lived and who worked for him for years, managing his affairs.[20]

Allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault

Director Bruce Robinson claimed to have been the target of unwanted sexual advances by Zeffirelli during the filming of Romeo and Juliet, in which Robinson played Benvolio. Robinson says that he based the lecherous character of Uncle Monty in the film Withnail and I on Zeffirelli.[21]

In 2018, actor Johnathon Schaech alleged that Zeffirelli sexually assaulted him during the filming of Storia di una capinera.[22] Zeffirelli's son Giuseppe "Pippo" issued a statement at the time denying the allegation.[23][24]


Zeffirelli died at his home in Rome on 15 June 2019, at the age of 96.[25][26]

Selected filmography


See also


  1. Redazione (15 June 2019). "Lutto nel mondo del cinema: morto Franco Zeffirelli". Notizie Oggi 24 (in Italian). Retrieved 15 June 2019.
  2. "Search". Retrieved 8 January 2017.
  3. Tommasini, Anthony (16 January 2014). "Virtuoso Poignancy Unfettered by Concepts". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 January 2017.
  4. "Teatro alla Scala". La Scala remembers Franco Zeffirelli. 15 June 2019. Retrieved 8 January 2017.
  5. "Zeffirelli" (in German). Wiener Staatsoper. Retrieved 8 January 2017.
  6. UK honour for director Zeffirelli, BBC News, 24 November 2004
  7. "Franco Zeffirelli Facts". Retrieved 8 January 2017.
  8. "Leonardo da Vinci's 'living relatives' identified". BBC News. 15 April 2016. Retrieved 8 January 2017.
  9. Donadio, Rachel (18 August 2009). "Maestro Still Runs the Show, Grandly". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 August 2009.
  10. "Franco Zeffirelli Biography". Yahoo! Movies. Retrieved 18 August 2009.
  11. "Burton Hosts Flood Special on Channel 33". The Gettysburg Times. 31 December 1966. Retrieved 29 December 2012.
  12. "Big Rental Films of 1969", Variety, 7 January 1970, p. 15
  13. "Big Rental Films of 1973", Variety, 9 January 1974, p. 60
  14. Ebert, Roger (15 October 1968). "Romeo and Juliet". Roger Ebert. Retrieved 17 January 2014.
  15. "UK honour for director Zeffirelli", BBC News. Accessed 27 May 2008
  16. Smith, Patricia Julian (9 January 2005). "Zeffirelli, Franco". glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Culture. Archived from the original on 14 August 2007. Retrieved 7 August 2007.
  17. Ulaby, Neda (15 June 2019). "Franco Zeffirelli, Creator Of Lavish Productions On Screen And Stage, Dies At 96". Weekend Edition, NPR. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
  18. "Obituary: Franco Zeffirelli". BBC News. 15 June 2019. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
  19. Barbara McMahon (21 November 2006). "Zeffirelli tells all about priest's sexual assault". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 December 2019.
  20. Rachel Donadio (18 August 2009). "Maestro Still Runs the Show, Grandly". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 December 2019.
  21. Murphy, Peter. "Interview with Bruce Robinson". Archived from the original on 7 July 2007. Retrieved 7 August 2007.
  22. Schaech, Johnathon (11 January 2018). "Actor Johnathon Schaech: I Was Molested by Director Franco Zeffirelli Zeffirelli directed Schaech in the 1994 film Sparrow". People. Retrieved 18 June 2019.
  23. "Director Franco Zeffirelli, 94, accused of molesting actor in 1992; son denies it". AP/USA Today. 11 January 2018. Retrieved 18 June 2019.
  24. Rebecca Keegan (18 June 2019). "The Dark Side of Franco Zeffirelli: Abuse Accusers Speak Out Upon the Famed Director's Death". Retrieved 1 December 2019.]
  25. "È morto Franco Zeffirelli, addio al Maestro". La Nazione. 15 June 2019. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
  26. Franco Zeffirelli, Oscar-Nominated Director for 'Romeo and Juliet,' Dies at 96, Duane Byrge, The Hollywood REPORTER, 15 June 2019
  27. "Franco Zeffirelli Filmography". Allmovie. Retrieved 18 August 2009.
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