Italian director Franco Zeffirelli started out as an actor in the stage productions of Luchino Visconti, then worked as an assistant on several Visconti-directed films. After World War II, Zeffirelli launched a career designing, costuming, and directing operas, a field of entertainment to which he'd return periodically throughout his life and which led to his first directorial credit, the Swiss-produced filmization La Boheme (1965). Zeffirelli's reputation in the 1960s rested on his boisterous, non-traditional movie versions of Shakespeare. He directed Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in a lusty adaptation of Taming of the Shrew (1967), then became an icon for the Youth Movement by casting 17-year-old Leonard Whiting and 15-year-old Olivia Hussey in Romeo and Juliet (1968). Zeffirelli's eye for visual richness served him well in the opulent Brother Sun/Sister Moon (1973), a romanticized account of Francis of Assisi. Some of Zeffirelli's later American films were unworthy of his talents, though he made the most of the emotional possibilities of The Champ (1979) and actually helped Brooke Shields pass as an actress in the otherwise lachrymose Endless Love (1981). The director found himself in the center of a controversy upon finishing the expensive Euro-American TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth; certain religious activists, upset that the ads promised a "human" look at Jesus, forced several sponsors to withdraw their advertising from the telecast. (The "scandal" proved groundless, since Zeffirelli's Jesus was one of the most reverently accurate ever seen in films.) Zeffirelli has been represented by his televised stagings of operas, many of which have shown up on American public television. And in 1990, Franco Zeffirelli returned to Shakespeare for an all-star film version of Hamlet, wherein the "surprise" was not so much Mel Gibson's superb rendition of the title role as the fact that this was the first movie Hamlet that looked like it was actually taking place in 12th century Denmark. He finished out the 20th century be helming the 1996 version of Jane Eyre and 1999's Tea With Mussolini. As the 2000s got under way, Zeffirelli focused primarily on directing opera and many of his stage creations were recorded and released on home video or played briefly in movie theaters.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Began career in theater in 1949 as a set designer for the first Italian production of A Streetcar Named Desire under the direction of Luchino Viconti.
- Made a name for himself as a drama and opera director in the 1950s and '60s in Milan, London and New York. Lavish sets were his trademark.
- Directed a major motion picture for the first time in 1967, The Taming of the Shrew, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
- Most acclaimed directorial effort, Romeo and Juliet, was released in 1968 and gained renown for the casting of unknown teen actors in the title roles.
- Directed Jesus of Nazareth in 1977, a television miniseries which is still aired in some countries around Easter.
- Endured criticism for Endless Love, a film with a teenaged Brooke Shields, a much-anticipated release that was unable to live up to the hype.
- Released Hamlet with Mel Gibson and Glenn Close in 1990.
- Received acclaim in 1999 for the autobiographical film Tea With Mussolini.