0844 GMT February 20, 2020
The Italian legend, who was nominated for an Academy Award for directing his innovative version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (1968), died Saturday at his residence in Rome “without suffering,” his son Pippo told The Hollywood Reporter.
‘Romeo and Juliet’, which starred then-unknown teenagers Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, also received a best picture nomination and garnered Academy Awards for cinematography and costume design, indicative of Zeffirelli's visual emphasis.
The film introduced a new generation to Shakespearean tragedy, created notoriety at the time for showing Hussey topless and was a big hit for Paramount when the studio was in dire need of one.
A year earlier, Zeffirelli wrote and directed an adaptation of another Shakespeare classic, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at the peak of their careers. And in 1990, he helmed a well-received ‘Hamlet’, toplined by Mel Gibson, then known as an action hero, and Glenn Close.
Zeffirelli staged opera in an epic style and drenched movies in the pathos of opera. His works were unabashedly sweeping extravaganzas that were popular with tourists and moneymakers for such auspicious venues as the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
His lavish romantic style was, at times, overly saccharine, as seen with ‘The Champ’ (1979), the boxing-movie remake starring Jon Voight, Faye Dunaway and Ricky Schroder, and ‘Endless Love’ (1981), which starred a young Brooke Shields (and, in his film debut, Tom Cruise). Zeffirelli's first cut on the latter received an X rating.
His religious epics were traditional and blessed by the Vatican. In 1972, he directed ‘Brother Sun, Sister Moon’, about the life of St. Francis of Assisi, and five years later helmed the international miniseries ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (with Hussey playing the Virgin Mary).
His other directorial turns included the operatic ‘La Traviata’ (1982) and ‘Otello’ (1986), both starring the Spanish tenor Placido Domingo. For ‘La Traviata’, he earned another Oscar nom for art direction-set decoration.
Since his work on Verdi’s ‘Falstaff’ in 1964 under the musical direction of Leonard Bernstein, Zeffirelli directed other operas including ‘Tosca’ and ‘Norma’ (both starring Maria Callas), ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’, ‘Pagliacci’ and ‘La Traviata’.
His direction of ‘La Boheme’ in 1981 with Teresa Stratas and Jose Carreras was one of the most extravagant productions in the history of the Met (he led about a dozen productions for the famed opera house). For that opus, Zeffirelli created all the ornate, lavish sets.
He received five David di Donatello Awards from his native country during the course of his career.