“Romeo and Juliet” director Franco Zeffirelli dies at 96
ROME | Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, who delighted audiences around the world with his romantic vision and extravagant productions, most famously captured in his cinematic “Romeo and Juliet” and the miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth,” died Saturday at 96.
While Zeffirelli was most popularly known for his films, his name was also inextricably linked to the theater and opera. He produced classics for the world’s most famous opera houses, from Milan’s venerable La Scala to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and plays for London and Italian stages.
Zeffirelli’s son Luciano said his father died at home in Rome.
“He had suffered for a while, but he left in a peaceful way,” he said.
Zeffirelli made it his mission to make culture accessible to the masses, often seeking inspiration in Shakespeare and other literary greats for his films, and producing operas aimed at TV audiences. Claiming no favorites, Zeffirelli once likened himself to a sultan with a harem of three: film, theater and opera.
“I am not a film director. I am a director who uses different instruments to express his dreams and his stories — to make people dream,” Zeffirelli told The Associated Press in a 2006 interview.
From his out-of-wedlock birth on the outskirts of Florence on Feb. 12, 1923, Zeffirelli rose to be one of Italy’s most prolific directors, working with such opera greats as Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Maria Callas, as well as Hollywood stars including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Mel Gibson, Cher and Judi Dench.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he was “profoundly moved by the death of Zeffirelli, who was an Italian ambassador of cinema, art and beauty.”
Throughout his career, Zeffirelli took risks — and his audacity paid off at the box office. His screen success in America was a rarity among Italian filmmakers.
He was one of the few Italian directors close to the Vatican, and the church turned to Zeffirelli’s theatrical touch for live telecasts of the 1978 papal installation and the 1983 Holy Year opening ceremonies in St. Peter’s Basilica. Former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi also tapped him to direct a few high-profile events.
But Zeffirelli was best known outside Italy for his colorful, softly-focused romantic films. His 1968 “Romeo and Juliet” brought Shakespeare’s famous story to a new and appreciative generation, and his 1973 “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,” told the life of St. Francis in parables.
“Romeo and Juliet” set box-office records in the United States, though it was made with two unknown actors, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey. The film, which cost $1.5 million, grossed $52 million and became one of the most successful Shakespearian movies ever.
A year earlier, he directed Taylor and Burton in Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” leaving his distinctive mark on world cinema.
In the 1970s, Zeffirelli’s focus shifted from the romantic to the spiritual. His 1977 made-for-television “Life of Jesus” became an instant classic with its portrayal of a Christ who seemed authentic and relevant. Shown around the world, the film earned more than $300 million.
Where Zeffirelli worked, controversy was never far away. In 1978, he threatened to leave Italy for good because of harsh attacks against him and his art by Italian leftists, who saw Zeffirelli as an exponent of Hollywood.
On the other hand, piqued by American criticism of his 1981 movie “Endless Love,” starring Brooke Shields, Zeffirelli said he might never make another film in the U.S. The movie, as he predicted, was a box office success.
In his 2006 autobiography, Zeffirelli recounted how his mother attended her husband’s funeral pregnant with another man’s child. Unable to give the baby either her name or his father’s, she tried to name him Zeffiretti, after an aria in Mozart’s “Idomeneo.” But a typographical error made it Zeffirelli, making him “the only person in the world with Zeffirelli as a name, thanks to my mother’s folly.”
His mother died of tuberculosis when he was 6, and Zeffirelli went to live with his father’s cousin, whom he affectionately called Zia (Aunt) Lide.
Living in Zia Lide’s house and getting weekly visits from his father, Zeffirelli developed the passions that would shape his life. The first was for opera, after seeing Wagner’s “Walkuere” at age 8 or 9 in Florence. The second was a love of English culture and literature, after his father started him on thrice-weekly English lessons.
His experiences with the British expatriate community under fascism, and their staunch disbelief that they would be victimized by Benito Mussolini’s regime, were at the heart of the semi-autobiographical 1991 film “Tea with Mussolini.”
He remained ever an Anglophile, and was particularly proud when Britain gave him an honorary knighthood in 2004.
As a youth, Zeffirelli served with the partisans during World War II. He later acted as an interpreter for British troops. Then the lifelong bachelor turned to acting at 20 when he joined an experimental troupe in Florence.
Zeffirelli reportedly said in his autobiography that he considered himself a homosexual instead of using the term gay, a word he detested.
After a short-lived acting career, Zeffirelli worked with Luchino Visconti’s theatrical company in Rome, where he showed a flair for dramatic staging techniques in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Troilus and Cressida.” He later served as assistant director under Italian film masters Michelangelo Antonioni and Vittorio De Sica.
In 1950, he began a long and fruitful association with lyric theater, working as a director, set designer and costumist, and bringing new life to works by his personal favorites: Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi. Over the next decade, he staged dozens of operas, romantic melodramas and contemporary works in Italian and other European theaters, eventually earning a reputation as one of the world’s best directors of musical theater.
Both La Scala and New York’s Metropolitan Opera later hosted Zeffirelli’s classic staging of “La Boheme,” which was shown on American television in 1982.
His first film effort in 1958, a comedy he wrote called “Camping,” had limited success.
Zeffirelli returned to prose theater in 1961 with an innovative interpretation of “Romeo and Juliet” at London’s Old Vic. British critics termed it “revolutionary,” and the director used it as the basis of frequent later productions and the 1968 film.
When Zeffirelli decided to do “La Traviata” on film, he had already worked his stage version of the opera into a classic, performed at La Scala with soprano Maria Callas. He had been planning the film since 1950, he said.
“In the last 30 years, I’ve done everything a lyric theater artist can do,” Zeffirelli wrote as the film was released in 1983. “This work is the one that crowns all my hopes and gratifies all my ambitions.”
The film, with Teresa Stratas and Placido Domingo in the lead roles, found near-unanimous critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic and received Oscar nominations for costuming, scenography and artistic direction.
Zeffirelli worked on a new staging of La Traviata as his last project, which will open the 2019 Opera Festival on June 21 at the Verona Arena.
“We’ll pay him a final tribute with one of his most loved operas,” said artistic director Cecilia Gasdia. “He’ll be with us.”
Zeffirelli often turned his talents toward his native city. In 1983, he wrote a historical portrait of Florence during the 15th and 16th centuries. During the disastrous 1966 Florence floods, Zeffirelli produced a well-received documentary on the damage done to the city and its art.
“I feel more like a Florentine than an Italian,” Zeffirelli once said. “A citizen of a Florence that was once the capital of Western civilization.”
Accused by some of heavy-handedness in his staging techniques, Zeffirelli fought frequent verbal battles with others in Italian theater.
“Zeffirelli doesn’t realize that an empty stage can be more dramatic than a stage full of junk,” Carmelo Bene, an avant-garde Italian director and actor, once said.
It was a criticism that some reserved for his lavish production of “Aida” to open La Scala’s 2006-7 season — his first return to the Milan opera house in a dozen years and the fifth “Aida” of his career. The production was a popular success, but may be remembered more for the turbulent exit of the lead tenor, Roberto Alagna, after being booed.
“I’m 83 and I’ve really been working like mad since I was a kid. I’ve done everything, but I never really feel that I have said everything I have to say,” Zeffirelli told The Associated Press shortly before the opening of “Aida.”
Zeffirelli had trouble with his balance after contracting an infection during hip surgery in 1999, but didn’t let that slow him down.
“I always have to cling on this or that to walk ... but the mind is absolutely intact,” he said in the AP interview.
Passengers subdue chaotic man on board Turkish Airlines jet
ANKARA, Turkey | Passengers on a Turkish Airlines jetliner flying to Sudan had to subdue a man who started screaming a few minutes after takeoff and began smashing an oxygen mask box and then a cabin window before pushing flight attendants aside and rushing toward the cockpit.
Associated Press photographer Hussein Malla was on the flight Friday and says several passengers stopped the man in the Boeing 737-900’s business class section. Flight attendants calmed the man down after about 15 minutes and he was taken back to a seat as the plane continued toward Khartoum. Flight attendants said the man was complaining about not being able to breathe.
After about 2½ hours, the pilots announced the plane was returning to Istanbul. A few minutes later, the man suddenly stood up and headed toward the front of the plane, where others grabbed him and tried to shackle him with plastic restraints provided by flight attendants but he resisted.
Passengers were yelling in fear and children were crying.
The plane landed back in Istanbul about three hours after it took off and police escorted the man off. As he departed, he shook hands with some passengers and kissed some children.
A Turkish Airlines official on Saturday confirmed Malla’s account, saying a 35-year-old Sudanese man on Flight TK680 from Istanbul to Khartoum displayed aggressive behavior, causing damage to the plane and physically and verbally harming other passengers.
He said the airline was forced to apply “inadmissible passenger” procedures to prevent further harm to passengers and ensure flight safety, which meant that the plane was diverted back to Istanbul and had to circle in the air to reduce fuel before landing.
It was not clear if the man, who was in police custody, was psychologically disturbed, the official said. He spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The airline will decide later whether to file a legal complaint against the passenger.
OJ Simpson on Twitter: ‘I got a little gettin’ even to do’
LOS ANGELES | O.J. Simpson launched a Twitter account with a video post in which the former football star said he’s got a “little gettin’ even to do.”
Simpson confirmed the new account to The Associated Press on Saturday, saying in a phone interview while on a Las Vegas golf course that it “will be a lot of fun.”
“I’ve got some things to straighten out,” he said.
He did not elaborate before he said he had to go and ended the call.
Simpson has generally kept a low profile since his release from prison in October 2017 for robbery and kidnapping over an attempt to steal back some of his sports memorabilia from a Las Vegas hotel room.
In the Twitter video, Simpson said his followers would get to read all his thoughts and opinions on “just about everything.”
“Now, there’s a lot of fake O.J. accounts out there,” he said, adding that this one would be official. He appeared to record the message himself and ended it with a grin.
The 71-year-old recently told the AP he was happy and healthy living in Las Vegas 25 years after the killings of his ex-wife and her friend. Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were stabbed to death on the night of June 12, 1994.
Simpson was ultimately acquitted of the crime after a televised trial that riveted the nation and raised thorny issues of racism, police misconduct, celebrity and domestic violence.
Relatives of the two victims have expressed disgust that Simpson is able to live the way he does. Simpson was ordered to pay $33.5 million for the wrongful deaths of the two victims, but most of the judgment has not been paid.
Simpson has continued to declare his innocence in the two slayings. The murder case is officially listed as unsolved.
In his recent interview , Simpson told the AP that neither he nor his children want to talk about the killings ever again.
“My family and I have moved on to what we call the ‘no negative zone.’ We focus on the positives,” he said.
Washington state waterfront owners asked to take dead whales
PORT HADLOCK, Wash. | At least one Washington state waterfront landowner has said yes to a request to allow dead gray whales to decompose on their property.
So many gray whale carcasses have washed up this year that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries says it has run out of places to take them.
In response, the agency has asked landowners to volunteer property as a disposal site for the carcasses. By doing so, landowners can support the natural process of the marine environment, and skeletons left behind can be used for educational purposes, officials said.
But the carcasses can be up to 40 feet long. That’s a lot to decay, and it could take months. Landowner Mario Rivera of Port Hadlock, Washington, told KING5-TV that the smell is intermittent and “isn’t that bad.”
“It is really a unique opportunity to have this here on the beach and monitor it and see how fast it goes,” said his wife, Stefanie Worwag.
The federal agency said that about 30 whales have stranded on Washington’s coast this year, the most in two decades.
On the U.S. West coast, about 70 whales have been found dead this year along California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, the most since 2000. About five were found on British Columbia beaches. Still, that’s a small fraction of the total number because most sink or wash up in remote areas and are unrecorded.
NOAA Fisheries late last month declared the die-off an “unusual mortality event,” and provided additional resources to respond to the deaths.
“With the unusual mortality event of these gray whales, we know more whales will be coming in, or there is a high likelihood that more whales will die within Puget Sound and out on the coast,” said Port Townsend Marine Science Center Citizen Science Coordinator Betsy Carlson.
Officials say the gray whale population remains strong at about 27,000.
Lime is being used to help break down the whale carcass on the beach near where Rivera and Worwag live.
“The lime appears to be working,” Rivera said. “It is decomposing nicely. I think.”
— From AP reports