Italian film, theater and opera director Franco Zeffirelli, known for his over-the-top productions, once described a scene of a father reacting to his son’s desire to work in the theater.
“He just broke everything in sight. Having exhausted the china and glass, he opened a drawer and pulled out a revolver, which he started to wave about.
“‘I made you, now I’ll unmake you!’”
The scene was not from one of Zeffirelli’s flamboyant movies or operas. It was from his life.
Zeffirelli, 96, whose life, like his productions, was full of grand characters, outsize passions, temperamental rages and torrid love affairs, died Saturday in Rome.
“He left in a peaceful way” after a long illness, his son Luciano told the Associated Press.
Zeffirelli is most widely known for his films, including the 1968 critical and box office hit “Romeo and Juliet” and a 1990 “Hamlet” with Mel Gibson, among other Shakespeare adaptations. His non-Bard movies included a remake of the classic “The Champ” (1979), with Jon Voight; “Tea with Mussolini” (1999) set in his beloved Florence; and his last feature film, “Callas Forever” (2002), which paid homage to his tempestuous friend, opera singer Maria Callas.
Some of his films drew mixed reviews at best, but his opera productions — with massive, opulent sets and onstage casts sometimes numbering in the hundreds, not to mention including animals — are almost invariably audience favorites in the opera houses that can afford them worldwide. At America’s premier opera venue, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Zeffirelli’s version of Puccini’s “La Boheme” is the most-often presented production in the company’s history.
In 1996 Los Angeles Opera presented his popular production of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci,” featuring crowd scenes that included acrobats, jugglers, fire eaters and a live donkey.
Critics complained that his stage productions were excessive, but for Zeffirelli, excess was just a starting point.
“They must always tell me, ‘Stop, is enough, is excessive,’” he told the London Observer in 2003. “But I prefer to go berserk. I will never stop!”
At 83, he created his last major, new opera production, his take on Verdi’s “Aida” that opened the La Scala season in Milan, Italy, in 2006. As usual, Zeffirelli designed the sets and costumes, as well as directed, resulting in an extravaganza that the Telegraph in London described as evoking “the grandeur of ancient Egypt in a riot of golden magnificence.”
On opening night, with Italy’s Prime Minister Romano Prodi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the audience, the applause went on for 15 minutes.
“For me, opera is dreams,” Zeffirelli said, “and when I dream I create my own planet.”
He engaged in high-profile feuds and his famous temper didn’t spare even as august a figure as conductor Arturo Toscanini, who caught Zeffirelli’s rage when he interrupted a rehearsal.
In his autumn years, Zeffirelli railed against the nontraditional stagings of young opera directors.
“They say I’m the greatest director of opera in the world,” he told the Independent in 2003. “I’m not the greatest — I’m the only one.”
Even his birth caused a scandal.
Zeffirelli was born Feb. 12, 1923, in the outskirts of Florence. His mother was seamstress and clothes designer Alaide Garosi, and his father was fabric merchant Ottorino Corsi — both of whom were married to others when Zeffirelli was conceived. In fact, Garosi was pregnant with him when she attended her husband’s funeral.
In his 1986 autobiography “Zeffirelli,” he wrote that his parents had “a stormy love affair that scandalized the close community that was Florence sixty years ago.”
His mother meant to give him the name Zeffiretti, meaning “little breezes,” from a Mozart aria, but a clerk misspelled it.
Zeffirelli was 6 when his mother died and he was raised mostly by his aunt. In his second autobiography, published in Italy in 2006 (no English-language version has been published), he revealed he had an early sexual experience with a priest. But Zeffirelli, a lifelong, staunch supporter of the Catholic Church and its hierarchy, did not describe the incident as traumatic.
“Molestation suggests violence and there was no violence at all,” he said in a 2006 Guardian interview.
Although he had several heterosexual affairs beginning when he was 16 — “I was very attractive, very handsome, and a lot of women fell in love with me,” he told the Guardian — his key romantic relationships were with men.
Zeffirelli wrote that he fought on the side of partisans against Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s fascist forces during World War II and was several times in danger. After the war he was planning to have a career as an architect until, in 1945 and back in Florence, he saw the film version of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” directed by and starring Laurence Olivier.
“There was Olivier at the height of his powers and there were the English defending their honor,” he wrote. “I knew then what I was going to do. Architecture was not for me; it had to be the stage.”
He was a lowly 22-year-old assistant scene painter when he met prominent stage and film director Luchino Visconti and they began a nearly decade-long affair. It was a rocky relationship, but through it, Zeffirelli met some of the major stage artists and celebrities of the time, including Callas, Leonard Bernstein, Anna Magnani, Coco Chanel and Tennessee Williams.
And his set designs for productions by Visconti and others brought him notice of his own. His breakout as a director came in 1954 when he was designing sets for a production of Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” (“Cinderella”) at La Scala. When the director became ill, Zeffirelli asked for the job and got it.
His completely revamped production was a “syntheses of past and present, combining 18th-century costumes with a pale, clearly lit palette,” wrote critic Zachary Woolfe in a 2011 London Observer feature. Although Zeffirelli’s stage works are now seen in many quarters as overburdened, he came onto the scene as an innovator.
His stature grew with further productions, especially a 1957 staging in Dallas of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” starring Callas and done as a flashback. And his no-holds-barred 1959 production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” in London made Joan Sutherland a star.
He triumphed in non-opera theater in London in 1960 with a naturalistic production of “Romeo and Juliet” that starred Judi Dench, then 25, and emphasized the sensuality of the relationship. Although several critics hated its break from tradition — he ordered actors to stress the dramatic nature of Shakespeare’s dialogue rather than its poetry — critic Kenneth Tynan in the Observer hailed it as “a revelation, even perhaps a revolution,” and young theatergoers (and non-theatergoers) lined up for tickets.
Zeffirelli then worked with prominent stage actors such as John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Ian McKellen and his inspiration, Olivier.
His first major film as a director, “The Taming of the Shrew” (1967), was headlined by two of the biggest stars of the time: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
However, for the 1968 film of “Romeo and Juliet” he insisted on casting teenage unknowns Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, in large part because of their beauty. He again emphasized the sensual nature of the relationship, this time to the point of having them mostly nude in a bedroom scene.
The film, much of which was photographed in a warm glow, was a blockbuster and drew critical raves. Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin wrote of “how triumphantly Zeffirelli has infused life and vigor, color and credence, into Shakespeare’s poetic tragedy.”
Some of Zeffirelli’s later films got good notices from critics, especially the two-part “Jesus of Nazareth,” shown on NBC in 1977, and his 1982 film of the Verdi opera “La Traviata. Roger Ebert called his 1990 “Hamlet” with Gibson and Glenn Close “robust and physical and — don’t take this the wrong way — upbeat.”
But Zeffirelli never came close to duplicating the critical success of the “Romeo and Juliet” film. His follow-up big screen effort, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (1972) — a kind of flower-child version of the St. Francis of Assisi story — sparked complaints that he emphasized pretty vistas and people more than meaningful content. His “The Champ” (1979) with Voight and a young Ricky Schroder was generally dismissed as an overwrought sudser.
By the time he made “Endless Love” (1981), he seemed to be in a public feud with Hollywood and his conservative views were coming to bear. “We’re fed up with seeing all the beautiful things in life destroyed,” he said in a 1981 Los Angeles Times Times interview on the set of the film. “I want to restore dignity to sex, after all the exploitation by the (film) industry.”
The movie, starring Brooke Shields, did well at the box office but was roundly trashed by critics.
Perhaps the worst reception he got for a film was the biopic “Young Toscanini” (1988), which was roundly booed at the Venice Film Festival and didn’t get a U.S. distributor. Earlier that year he angered many in the film community when he called Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” ’'truly horrible, completely deranged” on religious grounds.
Zeffirelli didn’t just make political statements. In 1983 he first ran for a seat in the Italian Parliament on the Christian Democratic ticket, but lost. He then swore off politics, but as often happened in his life, later changed his mind, running in 1994 on the ticket of the right-leaning Forza Italia party, headed by his highly controversial billionaire friend, Silvio Berlusconi. This time, Zeffirelli won and was reelected in 1996.
He was a staunch defender of Berlusconi through the former prime minister’s many and varied scandals. Zeffirelli told interviewers that Berlusconi bought him his Rome villa where he lived with his many dogs and continued to entertain, though he outlived most of his famous friends. He adopted two adult men as his sons, and they helped him get around after he became unsteady on his feet, due to what he said was a botched hip replacement.
“I shot all the films I wanted to, while I went back to opera whenever I felt vulnerable and in need of reassurance,” he said in a 2013 China Daily interview. “Opera for me has always been a sort of mother figure, the mother I lost when I was six.”
Colker is a former Times staff writer.
Former New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton’s tell-all book “Ball Four,” which detailed Mickey Mantle’s carousing and the use of stimulants in the major leagues, shocked and angered the baseball world. The right-hander was an All-Star in 1963, going 21-8 with six shutouts, but he finished his 10-year career with a 62-63 record and 3.57 ERA. He was 80.(AP)
Billionaire Ross Perot blazed across America in the 1990s as a third-party presidential candidate and won nearly 19% of the popular vote in the 1992 election, finishing third behind Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican President George H.W. Bush. The diminutive Texan was an early tech entrepreneur who founded Electronic Data Systems, a computer services company, in 1962 with $1,000 in savings. He was 89.(Peter Muhly / AFP/Getty Images)
Lee A. Iacocca’s swaggering persona dominated the automobile industry like nobody since Henry Ford. The salesman extraordinaire had a spectacular career, punctuated by his role as father of the wildly popular Ford Mustang in 1964, his epic 1978 firing at the hands of Henry Ford II and his dramatic rescue of Chrysler in the early 1980s. He was 94.(Associated Press)
Pitcher Tyler Skaggs grew up an Angels fan in Santa Monica and joined the organization as a first-round draft pick. He battled injuries throughout his career but started 24 games last season and showed signs of dominance this year. He was 27.(Charlie Riedel / AP)
Judith Krantz wrote blockbuster romance novels including “Scruples” and “Princess Daisy” that sold more than 80 million copies worldwide. Her books have been translated into more than 50 languages, and seven have been adapted as TV miniseries, with her late husband, Steve Krantz, serving as executive producer for most. She was 91.(Aaron Rapoport / Getty Images)
Gloria Vanderbilt transcended her famously disjointed childhood and later upheavals to become an actress, artist, author and fashion and merchandising icon. The “poor little rich girl,” as newspapers tagged the heiress, ultimately created a fortune that exceeded the immense one left by her great-great-grandfather, 19th-century shipping and railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt. She was 95.()
Italian director Franco Zeffirelli was best-known for his films, including the 1968 critical and box office hit “Romeo and Juliet” and a 1990 “Hamlet” with Mel Gibson. His massive opera productions included a version of Puccini’s “La Boheme” that became the most-often presented production in the Metropolitan Opera’s history. He was 96.(Paolo Cocco / AFP/Getty Images)
Danish-born socialite Claus von Bulow, left, shown with attorney Alan Dershowitz in April 1985, was convicted in 1982 and then acquitted three years later on two counts of attempting to murder his American heiress wife, Sunny, with injections of insulin. The high-profile case has been called one of the most sensational courtroom dramas in modern U.S. history. He was 92.(Charles Krupa / AP)
Bill Buckner’s 22-year Major League Baseball career started with the Dodgers and included seasons with the Cubs and Red Sox. He had more than 2,700 career hits and won the National League batting title in 1980, but he was best known for an error in the 1986 World Series that allowed the Mets to win Game 6 and extend Boston’s championship drought. He was 69.(AP)
Herman Wouk explored the moral fallout of World War II in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Caine Mutiny” (1951) and other widely read books. Determined to produce a “great war book,” Wouk wrote “The Winds of War” and its sequel, “War and Remembrance,” in the 1970s, and the two sweeping novels became the basis for a pair of television miniseries. He was 103.(Douglas L Benc Jr / AP)
Architect I.M. Pei had a client list that included French President Francois Mitterrand for the Louvre and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston. Among several Pei projects in the Los Angeles area are the former Creative Artists Agency headquarters in Beverly Hills and the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. He was 102.(Pierre Gleizes / AP Photo)
Tim Conway came to prominence on television as a bumbling ensign in “McHale’s Navy” opposite Ernest Borgnine from 1962 to 1966, then became a regular on “The Carol Burnett Show,” where he famously developed a knack for making costar Harvey Korman crack up. He also starred in the “Apple Dumpling Gang” movies in the 1970s and gained fame with a new generation as the voice of Barnacle Boy on “SpongeBob SquarePants.” He was 85.(George Brich / AP)
Doris Day was a big-band singer who became a Hollywood star in such lighthearted movies as “Pillow Talk” (1959) and “Lover Come Back” (1961), two of the three films she made with Rock Hudson. From 1948 to 1968, Day appeared in 39 films, but in the early 1970s she walked away from Hollywood and spent most of her time in Carmel, where she was an animal rights activist. She was 97.(AP)
Actress Peggy Lipton rose to stardom in the late 1960s on the counterculture police series “The Mod Squad” and later starred on TV’s “Twin Peaks.” Over five seasons, “Mod Squad” earned Lipton four Emmy nominations and a 1971 Golden Globe award for best actress in a TV drama. The wife of music producer Quincy Jones and mother of Kidada and Rashida Jones, Lipton was 72.(ABC)
Peter Mayhew played the Wookiee warrior Chewbacca in the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Standing at 7 feet 3, the British actor brought the character to life physically, whether battling Stormtroopers alongside Han Solo or playing chess against R2-D2. He was 74.(AP)
John Singleton’s 1991 debut, “Boyz n the Hood,” was an inner-city coming-of-age story that earned two Oscar nominations and put the young filmmaker in the company of emerging black moviemakers such as Spike Lee and Mario Van Peebles. Singleton went on to direct “Poetic Justice” (1993), “Higher Learning” (1995) and “Baby Boy” (2001), which featured Taraji P. Henson at the start of her career. He was 51.(Christopher Polk / AFP/Getty Images)
John Havlicek, shown above dribbling against Bill Bradley of the New York Knicks, was the all-time leading scorer in Boston Celtics history. Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984, Havlicek played all 16 of his professional seasons in Boston from 1962-1978, winning NBA titles in each of his eight Finals appearances, including five over the Lakers. He was 79.
Charles Van Doren was one of the first intellectual stars of the television era as a contestant on the NBC show “Twenty One,” but quickly became the country’s leading villain after admitting that his winning streak had been rigged. After he and nine other game show contestants pleaded guilty to perjury and were given suspended sentences, Van Doren slipped into obscurity and became an editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica. He was 93.(Hulton Archive / TNS)
Grammy-nominated rapper Nipsey Hussle was gunned down outside his Marathon Clothing store in the same South L.A. neighborhood where he was known as much for his civic work as he was for his hip-hop music. He was 33.(Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images for Warner Music)
Luke Perry played bad-boy heartthrob Dylan McKay in the 1990s TV drama “Beverly Hills, 90210.” The series put the affluent ZIP Code on the map as it became a pop-cultural phenomenon with Perry as the disaffected, ever-mysterious love interest of the romantic leads. He was 52.()
Sidney Sheinberg, right, with Steven Spielberg and Lea Adler, Spielberg’s mother, at a 1994 Beverly Hilton gala.
(Shepler, Lori / Los Angeles Times)
Jan-Michael Vincent was a golden boy of 1970s Hollywood action films and went on to star in the mid-1980s TV adventure series “Airwolf.” But his erratic behavior and cocaine consumption was a major reason “Airwolf” was canceled. He was 74 by most accounts, but the death certificate listed him as 73.(Alex Garcia / Los Angeles Times)
Sitcom star Katherine Helmond had memorable roles as ditzy matriarchs in “Soap,” “Who’s the Boss?” and “Coach.” Her work as Jessica Tate on the 1970s parody “Soap” earned her seven Emmy nominations, and she was nominated again in 2002 for her guest role in “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Helmond also starred in director Terry Gilliam’s films “Brazil” and “Time Bandits.” She was 89.(Chuck Burton / AP)
André Previn conquered L.A. with his artistic genius twice: first as an Academy Award winning composer of Hollywood movie music, then as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A conductor and pianist who toggled between classical, pop and jazz, Previn won Oscars for “My Fair Lady” (1964), “Irma la Douce” (1963), “Gigi” (1958) and “Porgy and Bess” (1959). He was 89.(Patrick Downs/ Los Angeles Times)
Guitarist Peter Tork, far right, became an overnight star in 1966 as one of the Monkees. Critics derided the made-for-television rock band as the “Prefab Four,” but their slapstick NBC comedy series helped make them a phenomenon and foreshadowed the craze for music television that emerged in the early 1980s. He was 77.(Michael Ochs Archives)
Dodgers right-hander Don Newcombe was the first outstanding African American pitcher in the major leagues and in 1949 became the first to start a World Series game. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound hurler was also the first player in major league history to have won the rookie of the year, Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards. He was 92.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Michigan Democrat John Dingell Jr. used his considerable power in the House of Representatives to uncover government fraud and defend the interests of the automobile industry. Known as “Big John” and “The Truck” for his forceful nature and 6-foot-3-inch frame, Dingell was the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history. He was 92.(Win McNamee / Getty Images)
Albert Finney starred in films as diverse as “Tom Jones,” “Annie” and “Skyfall.” One of the most versatile actors of his generation, he played an array of roles, including Winston Churchill, Pope John Paul II, a southern American lawyer and an Irish gangster. He was 82.(Graham Barclay / For The Times)
Hall of Fame outfielder Frank Robinson was the only major leaguer to be named most valuable player in both the National and American leagues. One of baseball’s most feared sluggers, he became the first African American to manage in the big leagues in 1975, when he filled that position for the Cleveland Indians. He was 83.(Richard Stacks / TNS)
Michelle King was the first African American woman to lead Los Angeles Unified School District. Her major accomplishment was pushing the graduation rate to record levels by allowing students to quickly make up credits for failed classes. She was 57.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Grammy-winning singer and songwriter James Ingram topped the charts in the ‘80s with hits like “Baby, Come to Me” and “Somewhere Out There.” He also co-wrote the Michael Jackson hit “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing).” He was 66.(Stefano Paltera / AP)
Emmy Award-winning writer Bob Einstein was best known as stuntman Super Dave Osborne, whose feats always went wrong. The comedy veteran got his start writing for 1970s variety shows such as “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and he later played Larry David’s devout friend Marty Funkhouser on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” He was 76.(Archive Photos / Getty Images)
Carol Channing was a Broadway star best known for her enduring portrayal of the title character in the musical “Hello, Dolly!” A winner of three Tony Awards, including one for lifetime achievement, she appeared in the play at least 5,000 times. She was 97.(Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images / Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Mary Oliver, one of the country’s most popular poets, focused on spirituality, nature and New England. Her poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984 and the National Book Award in 1992. She was 83.(Josh Reynolds / For the Times)
Herb Kelleher built Southwest Airlines into the biggest discount carrier and set the standard for budget air travel for more than three decades. He and co-founder Rollin King used a formula of short, no-frills trips that spawned dozens of imitators. He was 87.(Ed Betz / AP)