Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, who delighted audiences around the world with his romantic vision and often extravagant productions, most famously captured in his cinematic Romeo and Juliet, has died in Rome at 96. Zeffirelli's son Luciano said his father died at home on Saturday, per the AP. "He had suffered for a while, but he left in a peaceful way," Luciano said. 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 in New York, and plays for London and Italian stages. 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.
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 like Elizabeth Taylor and Judi Dench. Throughout his career, Zeffirelli took risks, and his screen success in America was a rarity among Italian filmmakers. Zeffirelli was best known outside Italy for his colorful, softly focused romantic films. His 1968 Romeo and Juliet brought Shakespeare's story to a new and appreciative generation. Romeo and Juliet set box-office records in the US, 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 the most successful Shakespearean movie ever. "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 AP in 2006. (Read more Franco Zeffirelli stories.)