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Franco Zeffirelli, Legendary 'Romeo and Juliet' Director, Dead at 96

Franco Zeffirelli, the Italian director best known for turning William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew and Hamlet into sumptuous films, died Saturday in Rome. He was 96.

The two-time Oscar-nominee died at his home at noon Saturday, his son Luciano told The Associated Press. "He had suffered for a while, but he left in a peaceful way," Luciano said.

Zeffirelli was best known internationally for his film career. He made his directing debut with 1958's Camping after an apprenticeship with his mentor, Luchino Visconti. He earned his first big hit with the 1967 film of The Taming of The Shrew, which starred then-married Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. That was followed by his 1968 adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, in which he famously cast then-teenagers Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in the title roles.

Romeo & Juliet was a smash hit around the world, earning four Oscar nominations, including Best Director for Zeffirelli. The film was also nominated for Best Picture and won Oscars for its costume design and cinematography.

His other film credits include Hamlet (1990) with Mel Gibson, The Champ (1979), Sparrow (1993) and Jane Eyre (1996). His final film was Callas Forever, starring Fanny Ardant as opera singer Maria Callas. In 1983, he earned an Oscar nomination for Best Set Decoration for his film La Traviata.

In Italy, Zeffirelli was also known for his theater and opera direction. According to Variety, he worked with Salvador Dali in 1948 to design a production of As You Like It, and worked with Visconti to design the famous Italian production of A Streetcar Named Desire. In 1952, he began working with La Scala in Milan to design and direct productions before moving on to other opera houses throughout the country.

In the mid-1950s, Zeffirelli took his talents internationally. In 1958, he worked on his first production in the U.S. with the famous Dallas Civic Opera production of La Traviata with Callas. A year later, he worked at the Royal Opera House in England for a handful of productions. He also staged an acclaimed Romeo & Juliet production at the Old Vic in London.

Zeffirelli had mixed success on Broadway, but did work with the Metropolitan Opera in New York several times throughout his life.

The director, who was openly gay, became a devout Catholic after a car accident in 1969 almost killed him. He then made Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a film about Saint Francis of Assisi in 1972. In 1977, he directed the television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth.

Zeffirelli was also a controversial figure. Catholics criticized him for blasphemous scenes in his movies, while gay activists criticized his support for the church. He also ran for political office, joining the Italian Senate and belonged to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.

In 2018, actor Jonathon Schaech told PEOPLE he was molested by Zeffirelli in 1992, while filming Sparrow. Zeffirelli's son Pippo denied the claims, calling them "not credible."

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Zeffirelli is survived by Pippo and Luciano, whom he adopted late in life.

Photo credit: Patrick PICOT / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images