Childhood & Early Life
Franco Zeffirelli was born on 12 February 1923, in the outskirts of Florence out of an extramarital affair between Ottorino Corsi, wool and silk dealer, and Alaide Garosi, a fashion designer. Both of them were married and so he could neither be given his father’s name nor could his mother take him home.
His mother placed him with a peasant family, but did not really abandon him. Originally he was named Gianfranco Corsi, but later she changed it to Franco Zeffiretti (meaning "little breezes" as mentioned in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte). However, it was misspelled during registration and thus he became Zeffirelli.
After her husband’s death two years later, Alaide Garosi’s brought her son home. Unfortunately, she died from tuberculosis within four years and so six years old Franco went to live with his father’s cousin Lide and grew up under the patronage of the English expatriate community, known as the Scorpioni.
He had his schooling at Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze, an esteemed art school founded during the Renaissance. On passing out from there in 1941, he entered the University of Florence with art and architecture on the advice of his father. Here he came in touch with the University’s theatre group.
By now Italy had joined the Second World War as an Axis power. Zeffirelli joined the resistance group and started working as an interpreter for the British soldiers of the 1st Scots Guards.
After the war, he rejoined the University of Florence, but now he took greater interest in theatre. Once he saw Laurence Olivier's ‘Henry V’ (1945), he made up his mind to go into entertainment business.
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Franco Zeffirelli began his career as a screen painter. In 1946, he met Luchino Visconti and joined his Morelli-Stoppa Company as an actor and assistant director. After working with him in different films, most important of which was ‘La terra trema’ (1948), he decided to concentrate on stage design.
His first major work in this field was 1952-1953 production of ‘L’Italiana in Algeri’. It was a two act drama giocoso by Gioachino Rossini, held at La Scala, Milan.
Concurrently, he kept on assisting well-known film directors and worked in films like ‘Bellissima’ (1951), 'Senso' (1954), 'Lo Scapolo' (1955) and 'Andrea Chenier ' (1955). Since then he has been successfully shuttling between opera, theatre and films.
In 1960s, he successfully designed and directed his own plays in London and New York; but soon his interest turned to film direction. He first chose William Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’, starting work in 1966. The film had Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the lead role and was shot in Italy.
However, before he could finish it, flood on the Arno River (in November 1966) caused havoc in Florence, killing more than a hundred people, destroying many invaluable art pieces. Zeffirelli stopped the work to make a documentary on it.
Titled, ‘Florence: Days of Destruction’, it was a 50 minutes documentary narrated by Richard Burton in English and Italian. The film earned more than $20 million, which he donated for reconstruction of the city.
’Taming of the Shrew’ was released on March 8, 1967. Made with a budget of $4 million and distributed by Columbia Pictures, the film grossed $8 million in North America and $12 million worldwide, making it the 25th highest grossing picture of 1967.
Zeffirelli’s next film, ‘Romeo Juliet’, was also filmed in Italy. It was distributed by Paramount Pictures and had Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in the lead roles. Released on 8 October, 1968, it earned $38.9 million at the box office and also an Oscar nomination.
His next chose a very different subject and in 1972 made ‘Brother Sun Sister Moon’ on the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. The film was highly praised for its lush photography and earned $1,200,000 in US and Canada rentals alone.
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Zeffirelli’s next major work was a television miniseries titled ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. The miniseries was shot mainly in Morocco and Tunisia in 1975 and 1976. Based on the life of Jesus Christ, from birth to crucifixion and resurrection, it was directed and co-written by him and was first aired in March 1977.
Zeffirelli spent 1978, working as a stage director in two operas, 'Cavalleria rusticana' and 'Pagliacci'. Next in 1979, he made ‘The Champ’. It was remake of an earlier movie of the same name. The film earned Academy Award nomination and did well at the box office.
In July 1981, he released his next film ‘Endless Love’. Although the film received very poor reviews, it was a box office success.
1982, was a busy year for Zeffirelli. This year, he had three opera-based films released; they were ‘La Traviata’, 'Cavalleria rusticana' and 'Pagliacci'. Besides he also created a live opera show, titled ‘La bohème’, for the Metropolitan Opera, New York.
His next important film was ‘Otello’, released at the end of 1986. The film, made in Italian, was based on the Giuseppe Verdi opera of the same name, which in turn was based on the Shakespeare’s play Othello. The shooting was done in Italy and Netherland.
’Hamlet’, again based on Shakespeare’s play of the same name, was his next major work. The film made in English, had limited release in December 1990 and worldwide release in the following month. Although the film received a mixed review, the critics were unanimous in praising Zeffirelli’s direction.
His next film, ‘Storia di una capinera’ (Sparrow), was released in Italy in 1993 and in UK in 1994. It was filmed in Sicily and was based on Giovanni Verga's novel of the same name. Made in Italian, it was awarded the best Latin film of the Year.
Zeffirelli then chose Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel, ‘Jane Eyre’ for his next project. The film, also named ‘Jane Eyre’, is an American, British, French and Italian romantic epic and was mostly filmed at Haddon Hall, Bakewell, Derbyshire, UK. Released on April 12, 1996, it earned $5,200,601 at the box office.
His next film, titled ‘Tea with Mussolini’, was a semi-autobiographical work. This 1999 Anglo-Italian film was about a young Italian boy, brought up by a circle of British and American women, before as well as during the Second World War.
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His last major work, ‘Callas Forever’, was a biographical film and also his homage to internationally acclaimed opera diva Maria Callas. Filmed in Bucharest, Andalusia, and Paris, it was indeed a great success both critically and financially.
Awards & Achievements
Franco Zeffirelli has won David di Donatello Awards for his work in ‘Romeo Juliet’ (1968), ‘Brother Sun, Sister Moon’ (1972) and ‘Hamlet’ (1990). He also received two special David di Donatello Awards in 1979 and 2002.
In 1984, he won BAFTA Award for ‘La traviata’.
In 1985 and 1986, he won Primetime Emmy awards for Outstanding Individual Achievements - Classical Music/Dance Programming.
In 1977, he was made a Grande Ufficiale OMRI of the Italian Republic.
In November 2004, he was created the Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
In 1996, he was awarded an honorary degree for services to the arts by the University of Kent.