Franco Zeffirelli

Zeffirelli in 1972
Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli

(1923-02-12)12 February 1923
Florence, Italy
Died15 June 2019(2019-06-15) (aged 96)
Rome, Italy
Alma materAcademy of Fine Arts of Florence
  • Film director
  • opera director
  • politician
Political party
Children2 (adopted)
Member of the Senate of the Republic
In office
21 April 1994 – 29 May 2001
Military career
AllegianceUnited Kingdom
Service/branchBritish Army
Years of service1942–1945
Unit24th Guards Brigade
Battles/warsWorld War II

Gian Franco Corsi Zeffirelli (12 February 1923 – 15 June 2019)[1] was an Italian stage and film director, producer, production designer and politician. He was one of the most significant opera and theatre directors of the post–World War II era, gaining both acclaim and notoriety for his lavish stagings of classical works, as well as his film adaptations of the same.[2][3] A member of the Forza Italia party, he served as the Senator for Catania between 1994 and 2001.

Films he directed included the Shakespearean adaptations The Taming of the Shrew (1967), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; Romeo and Juliet (1968), for which he received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Director; and Hamlet (1990), starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close. His Biblical television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977) won both national and international acclaim and is still frequently shown at 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.[4] 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 born after 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 misspelt in the register and became Zeffirelli.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] After World War II broke out, he fought as a partisan, before he met up with British soldiers of the 1st Battalion 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 scene-painter in Florence, he was introduced to Luchino Visconti, who hired him as an 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.[8] 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 the cinema.



Zeffirelli with Olivia Hussey while filming Romeo and Juliet in 1967

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 featured 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.[9]

Zeffirelli's major breakthrough came the year after, when he presented two teenagers as Romeo and Juliet (1968). It 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 in 1969.[10] It was re-released in 1973 and earned $1.7 million in rentals.[11]

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".[12]

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.

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 Mel Gibson in the lead role. His adaptation of the Charlotte Brontë novel Jane Eyre (1996) was a critical success.

Zeffirelli frequently cast unknown actors in major roles: Leonard Whiting (Romeo in Romeo and Juliet), Graham Faulkner (St. Francis in Brother Sun, Sister Moon) and Martin Hewitt (David Axelrod in Endless Love).


Zeffirelli was a major director of opera productions from the 1950s 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. He also staged at the Vienna State Opera: Don Giovanni (1972), La Bohème (1963), and Carmen with Elena Obraztsova and Plácido Domingo in 1978.[13][14] Zeffirelli also collaborated with 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. When the new Metropolitan Opera opened at Lincoln Center, he directed its first production, Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra, starring Leontyne Price.


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]

Awards and nominations

Association Year Category Work Result Ref(s)
Academy Awards 1969 Best Director Romeo and Juliet Nominated [16]
1983 Best Art Direction La Traviata Nominated [17]
British Academy Film Awards 1969 Best Direction Romeo and Juliet Nominated [18]
1984 Best Film Not in the English Language La Traviata Nominated [19]
Best Production Design Won
1987 Best Film Not in the English Language Otello Nominated [20]
British Academy Television Awards 1978 Best Single Play Jesus of Nazareth Nominated [21]
Cannes Film Festival 1986 Palme d'Or Otello Nominated [22]
David di Donatello Awards 1969 Best Director Romeo and Juliet Won [23]
1972 Brother Sun, Sister Moon Won
1979 European David Won
1991 Best Foreign Film Hamlet Won
2002 Special David Won
Directors Guild of America Awards 1969 Outstanding Directing – Feature Film Romeo and Juliet Nominated [24]
Flaiano Prizes 1996 Career Award Won [25]
Globo d'oro 2013 Won [26]
Golden Globe Awards 1969 Best Director Romeo and Juliet Nominated [27]
Best English-Language Foreign Film Won
1983 Best Foreign Language Film La Traviata Nominated
1987 Otello Nominated
Nastro d'Argento Awards 1969 Best Director Romeo and Juliet Won [28]
2013 Special Silver Ribbon Won [29]
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 1999 Crystal Globe Won [30]
National Board of Review 1969 Best Director Romeo and Juliet Won [31]
Palm Springs International Film Festival 2003 Director's Achievement Award Won [32]
Primetime Emmy Awards 1985 Outstanding Individual Achievement – Classical Music/Dance Programming – Directing Pagliacci Won [33]
1986 Outstanding Individual Achievements – Classical Music/Dance Programming Great Performances: "Cavalleria Rusticana" Won
Razzie Awards 1982 Worst Director Endless Love Nominated [34]
Tony Awards 1962 Special Tony Award Romeo and Juliet Won [35]
1963 Best Scenic Design The Lady of the Camellias Nominated [36]


Zeffirelli received criticism from religious groups for what they call the blasphemous representation of biblical figures in his films.[37] He also 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."[38]

Zeffirelli was a highly conservative Catholic,[38] and served two terms in the Italian senate as a member of Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia party.[39] He was criticized by members of the gay community for upholding the Catholic Church's position on homosexuality[37][38][39] and by others for support of the Church's position on abortion,[38][39] which extended to calling for capital punishment for women who had terminated a pregnancy.[39]

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.[38]

Personal life

In 1996, Zeffirelli came out as gay, but thereafter preferred to be discreet about his personal life.[40] Zeffirelli said that he considered himself "homosexual" rather than gay, as he felt the term "gay" was less elegant.[41] Zeffirelli adopted two adult sons, men with whom he had lived and who worked for him for years, managing his affairs.[41]

Allegations of sexual assault

Director Bruce Robinson claimed to have been the target of unwanted amorous attention from 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.[42]

In 2018, the American actor Johnathon Schaech alleged that Zeffirelli sexually assaulted him during the filming of Sparrow (Storia di una capinera, 1993).[43] Zeffirelli's son Giuseppe "Pippo", adopted by the filmmaker as an adult, issued a statement at the time denying the allegation.[44][45]


Zeffirelli died at his home in Rome on 15 June 2019, at the age of 96.[46][47]

Selected filmography



  1. ^ Redazione (15 June 2019). "Lutto nel mondo del cinema: morto Franco Zeffirelli". Notizie Oggi 24 (in Italian). Retrieved 15 June 2019.
  2. ^ "Franco Zeffirelli obituary". the Guardian. 15 June 2019. Retrieved 6 August 2022.
  3. ^ Kandell, Jonathan (15 June 2019). "Franco Zeffirelli, Italian Director With Taste for Excess, Dies at 96". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 6 August 2022.
  4. ^ UK honour for director Zeffirelli, BBC News, 24 November 2004
  5. ^ "Franco Zeffirelli Facts". Retrieved 8 January 2017.
  6. ^ "Leonardo da Vinci's 'living relatives' identified". BBC News. 15 April 2016. Retrieved 8 January 2017.
  7. ^ Donadio, Rachel (18 August 2009). "Maestro Still Runs the Show, Grandly". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 August 2009.
  8. ^ "Franco Zeffirelli Biography". Yahoo! Movies. Retrieved 18 August 2009.
  9. ^ "Burton Hosts Flood Special on Channel 33". The Gettysburg Times. 31 December 1966. Retrieved 29 December 2012.
  10. ^ "Big Rental Films of 1969", Variety, 7 January 1970, p. 15
  11. ^ "Big Rental Films of 1973", Variety, 9 January 1974, p. 60
  12. ^ Ebert, Roger (15 October 1968). "Romeo and Juliet". Roger Ebert. Retrieved 17 January 2014.
  13. ^ "„Carmen" am 09.12.1978 | Spielplanarchiv der Wiener Staatsoper". Retrieved 14 September 2023.
  14. ^ "Vorstellungen mit Franco Zeffirelli | Spielplanarchiv der Wiener Staatsoper". Retrieved 14 September 2023.
  15. ^ "UK honour for director Zeffirelli", BBC News. Accessed 27 May 2008
  16. ^ "The 41st Academy Awards | 1969". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  17. ^ "The 55th Academy Awards | 1983". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  18. ^ "Film in 1969 | BAFTA Awards". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  19. ^ "Film in 1984 | BAFTA Awards". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  20. ^ "Film in 1987 | BAFTA Awards". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  21. ^ "Television in 1978 | BAFTA Awards". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  22. ^ "Official Selection 1986". Cannes Film Festival. Archived from the original on 16 December 2013. Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  23. ^ "Franco Zeffirelli – Premi David di Donatello" [Franco Zeffirelli – David di Donatello Awards] (in Italian). Accademia del Cinema Italiano. Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  24. ^ "1968 Awards". Directors Guild of America. Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  25. ^ "Flaiano International Awards Winners 1996". Premi Flaiano. Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  26. ^ Boni, Federico (5 July 2013). "Globi d'Oro 2013: tutti i vincitori" [2013 Globi d'Oro: all the winners]. Yahoo! News (in Italian). Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  27. ^ "Franco Zeffirelli | Golden Globes". Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  28. ^ "Nastri d'Argento | 1969" (in Italian). Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists. Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  29. ^ Fusco, Fabio (12 February 2013). "Franco Zeffirelli: un Nastro d'Argento per i suoi 90 anni" [Franco Zeffirelli: a Silver Ribbon to celebrate his 90th birthday]. Movieplayer (in Italian). Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  30. ^ "34th Festival". Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  31. ^ "1968 Award Winners". National Board of Review. Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  32. ^ Kay, Jeremy (7 January 2003). "Palm Springs honours Zeffirelli, Redgrave, the late Conrad Hall". ScreenDaily. Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  33. ^ "Franco Zeffirelli | Emmy Awards". Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  34. ^ "1981 Razzie Awards". Golden Raspberry Award Foundation. Archived from the original on 16 January 2014. Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  35. ^ "Winners / 1962 / Special Tony Award". American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League. Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  36. ^ "Nominations / 1963 / Scenic Design". American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League. Retrieved 10 November 2022.
  37. ^ a b 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.
  38. ^ a b c d e 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.
  39. ^ a b c d "Obituary: Franco Zeffirelli". BBC News. 15 June 2019. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
  40. ^ Barbara McMahon (21 November 2006). "Zeffirelli tells all about priest's sexual assault". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 December 2019.
  41. ^ a b Rachel Donadio (18 August 2009). "Maestro Still Runs the Show, Grandly". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 December 2019.
  42. ^ Murphy, Peter. "Interview with Bruce Robinson". Archived from the original on 7 July 2007. Retrieved 7 August 2007.
  43. ^ Schaech, Johnathon (11 January 2018). "Actor Johnathon Schaech: I Was Molested by Director Franco Zeffirelli". People. Retrieved 18 June 2019.
  44. ^ "Director Franco Zeffirelli, 94, accused of molesting actor in 1992; son denies it". USA Today. Associated Press. 11 January 2018. Retrieved 18 June 2019.
  45. ^ Keegan, Rebecca (18 June 2019). "The Dark Side of Franco Zeffirelli: Abuse Accusers Speak Out Upon the Famed Director's Death". Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 1 December 2019.]
  46. ^ "È morto Franco Zeffirelli, addio al Maestro". La Nazione. 15 June 2019. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
  47. ^ Franco Zeffirelli, Oscar-Nominated Director for 'Romeo and Juliet,' Dies at 96, Duane Byrge, The Hollywood REPORTER, 15 June 2019
  48. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x "Franco Zeffirelli Filmography". Allmovie. Retrieved 18 August 2009.