Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli dies at 96

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Mr Zeffirelli pictured in 2014Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Mr Zeffirelli directed movie stars including Elizabeth Taylor and opera greats such as Maria Callas

Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli has died aged 96.

The Florence native directed stars including Elizabeth Taylor in the 1967 film Taming of the Shrew and Dame Judi Dench on stage in Romeo and Juliet.

Italian media said Zeffirelli died after a long illness which had grown worse in recent months.

The two-time Oscar nominee also served in the Italian senate for two terms as a member of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.

He is perhaps best known to many as the director of the 1968 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet – starring a then-unknown Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey.

It was viewed by generations of school students studying the Shakespearean drama.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Franco Zeffirelli, photographed in 1967

The illegitimate son of a merchant, his mother gave him the surname "Zeffiretti" – meaning "little breezes" – which was misspelled on his birth certificate.

The original meaning came from a Mozart opera – and Zeffirelli would go on to become a prolific creator of opera himself, staging more than 120 during his career in London, Milan and New York.

"Franco Zeffirelli, one of the world's greatest men of culture, passed away this morning," tweeted Dario Nardella, mayor of Florence. "Goodbye dear Maestro, Florence will never forget you."

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Zeffirelli initially studied architecture at the University of Florence, but his education was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. During the conflict, he fought for Communist partisan forces against Mussolini's Fascists and the occupying Nazis.

After being captured by Fascists, he was saved from execution when his interrogator turned out to be a half brother whom he'd never known. His half brother arranged for his release.

When the war was over, he continued his studies but said he became inspired to pursue a career in theatre after seeing Laurence Olivier's Henry V (1944).

In 1945, he started work as a set designer at Florence's Teatro della Pergola, and concentrated on theatre throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

At the Pope's request, in 1970 Zeffirelli staged "Missa solemnis" in honour of the 200th anniversary of Beethoven's birth.

His first film was a Shakespeare adaptation, The Taming of the Shrew. While initially intended to star two Italian actors, it was heavily funded by Hollywood couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who eventually assumed the two leading roles.

Another notable adaptation of the bard's plays would come in 1990s Hamlet – starring Mel Gibson in the title role, with Glenn Close and Helena Bonham Carter among the supporting cast.