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Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, acclaimed in film, theater and opera, dies at 96

David Colker, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

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, outsized 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.

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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 premiere 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 include 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.

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