Franco Zeffirelli, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Director, Dies at 96

Two-time Oscar nominee was also known for directing opera and theater in his native Italy

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Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, a two-time Oscar nominee best known for his 1968 big-screen version of “Romeo and Juliet,” died on Saturday at age 96.

Zeffirelli’s son Luciano told the Associated Press that his father died at home in Rome.

He earned two Oscar nominations, the first for directing the lush adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” starring a then-unknown Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, which grossed more than $52 million in the U.S. on a $1.5 million budget, according to the AP. He earned a second nomination for art and set decoration on his filmed version of the opera “La Traviata” starring Placido Domingo and Teresa Stratas.

Zeffirelli was also widely acclaimed as a director of theater and opera in his native Italy and won two Primetime Emmy Awards for his work on PBS’ “Great Performances” productions of the operas “Pagliacci” in 1985 and “Cavalleria Rusticana” in 1986.

The illegitimate son of a Florence merchant, Zeffirelli studied architecture before turning to theater — where he started out in set design before expanding into directing.

After his first film, the Italian-language comedy “Camping” in 1958, he managed to hook two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, for a big-screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” in 1967.

“Romeo and Juliet,” which caused a sensation for casting teenage actors in the title roles, arrived one year later to great success, and Oscar wins for cinematography and costume design (the film also earned nominations for Best Picture and Zeffirelli’s direction).

He followed those successes with a series of other films, including 1972’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” 1981’s “Endless Love” with Brooke Shields, 1990’s “Hamlet” with Mel Gibson, 1996’s “Jane Eyre” with William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg and 1999’s semi-autobiographical “Tea With Mussolini.”