Director best known for Jesus of Nazareth who worked as resistance fighter with the Scots Guards

Born: February 12, 1923;

Died: June 15, 2019

FRANCO Zeffirelli, who has died aged 96, was a director of theatre, opera and film who pursued three great missions in his career. The first was to popularise opera and, in his own words, give the art form back to the people; the second was to bring Shakespeare to mainstream cinema audiences; and the third, and for him the most important, was to spread the word of the Gospel.

He completed the first mission – to popularise great opera – with many stylish stagings of the greats, often starring his friend Maria Callas and other stars including Placido Domingo and Dame Joan Sutherland. The productions were never less than beautiful, flamboyant and popular, although they were rarely loved by the critics.

His second mission – to bring Shakespeare to cinema audiences – he achieved with passionate big-budget movies including The Taming of the Shrew with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and a version of Hamlet made in Scotland with the controversial choice of Mel Gibson as the lead.

As for his third mission – to spread the word of the Gospel – that was achieved through his greatest and most popular work: an epic television version of the story of Jesus starring Robert Powell and virtually every leading actor of the 1970s. It was a spectacular success and in some parts of the world led to Zeffirelli being mobbed by believers as if he was personally doing the work of God. In some ways, as a practising Christian, he believed he was.

Religion was not always an easy matter for Zeffirelli though. His faith was strong and his love of the Catholic Church unshakeable, but he was also gay and had an affair with another of the greats of Italian cinema Luchino Visconti. Zeffirelli once said he accepted that in the eyes of the Church his sexuality was sinful, but as a Catholic he also believed that the Church would forgive him.

HeraldScotland: Zeffirelli with Robert Powell and Lew GradeZeffirelli with Robert Powell and Lew GradeAs the child of an extra-marital affair in Italy in the 1920s, Zeffirelli also grew up the victim of prejudice against illegitimate children. His father was Ottorino Corsi, a merchant, and his mother was Alaide Garosi, a fashion designer. The name Zeffirelli was invented by his mother because Italian law forbade the use of either parent’s surname.

After his mother died when he was six, he was brought up his aunt Lide and was rather a loner. He loved to build his own teatrini, or toy theatres, and discovered his interest in the opera when he was taken to the Florence Opera House; his love of film came from watching Boris Karloff, Rudoplh Valentino and his great hero, Jackie Cooper, the child star of The Champ, a film Zeffirelli would later re-make.

At school, the young Zeffirelli was obliged, like all schoolchildren in Italy, to wear the Fascist black shirt and was also a member of the Balilla, the Italian equivalent of the Hitler Youth (he had no choice in the matter). After the outbreak of the Second World War, he was told he would have to join the army or be shot, but instead he joined the Italian resistance movement and fought as a partisan, living rough in the mountains.

He witnessed many horrors during his time in the resistance, including young boys who had been hanged with barbed wire by the Nazis. Witnessing this war crime was one of the most profound experiences of Zeffirelli’s life and he based the crucifixion scene in Jesus of Nazareth on what he saw that day.

After one fierce battle against the Germans, he encountered the First Battalion of the Scots Guards and was adopted by them as an interpreter, becoming an unofficial member of the regiment. He was able to give the Scots considerable information as they advanced into Italy and showed them shortcuts they could use to take the Germans by surprise.

He accompanied the Scots Guards all the way to Florence where he tried to pick up the threads of his old life. Realising his ambitions lay with the theatre, he found a job as assistant to a scenic painter in Florence which is where he met Visconti, who was to become the most important person in his life and career.

Their relationship was long, turbulent and occasionally violent but Zeffirelli knew that the most influential director in Italy could help advance his career and he did, giving him small parts as an actor in some of his productions. Zeffirelli could have become a full-time actor – indeed, RKO offered him a contract and told him they could make him a star – but he believed his future lay in designing and directing and he worked as an assistant to Visconti. Later, he found it hard to break away from the Visconti circle but eventually found work directing plays and opera in Italy, the UK and the US.

HeraldScotland: Zeffirelli with Liz TaylorZeffirelli with Liz TaylorHis work directing opera began with works by Rossini, which audiences loved and critics hated, and included productions starring Maria Callas, who became a friend. Later, when she became reclusive and paranoid, he tried to encourage her back to the stage to no avail. He was also an early collaborator with Joan Sutherland, directing her international debut in Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden.

However, his real ambitions were in film rather than opera. His first movie as director was called Camping about the adventures of two lovers on a motorbike and it was a minor hit but after directing Judi Dench in Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic, he was asked to direct The Taming of The Shrew starring Burton and Taylor, a film which transformed him into a major figure in cinema and led quickly to another Shakespearean film, Romeo and Juliet with Olivia Hussey. They were both box office hits and on the back of the success, Zeffirelli went to Hollywood.

His years there were patchy however. Given the freedom to choose his own projects, he chose Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a biography of St Francis of Assisi, but it was not a success. His remake of The Champ in the 1970s was also savaged by the critics, who often saw Zeffirelli’s work as beautiful but empty; there was also a disastrous movie with Brooke Shields.

It was when various other film projects fell by the wayside that – guided, Zeffirelli believed, by the hand of God – he agreed to direct Jesus of Nazareth. It was an ambitious project, a vast film and television tie-in telling Christ’s story commissioned by the British media giant Lew Grade and written by Anthony Burgess. It took two years to make and was filmed in Morocco. Shown over Easter in 1977, priests and ministers often told Zeffirelli that the films had made converts, comforted the bereaved and even averted suicides.

Zefferilli knew that anything he did after such an epic success would be a come down but even so he was disappointed by his romantic film with Brooke Shields, Endless Love, and went on to make film versions of opera.

He then returned to Shakespeare with Hamlet starring Mel Gibson, a controversial choice at the time as the Australian was known largely for action movies. Zeffirelli had faith in his star though and believed he could help him in his mission to popularise Shakespeare for cinema audiences.

The gamble worked. Filmed largely at Dunnottar Castle in Aberdeenshire in 1989, the film also starred Alan Bates and Glenn Close and was considered a success. It was a return to form for Zeffirelli relatively late in his career.

His next project was a version of Jane Eyre, also a critical success, and in 2002 he made a bio-pic of his old friend Callas before returning to directing opera at La Scala.

He also entered politics for the first time, serving as a member of the Italian Senate from 1994 for the right-of-centre Forza Italia party of Silvio Berlusconi. Politics was always a delicate balance for Zeffirelli – he supported the position of the Catholic Church on sexuality despite his own personal circumstances; he was also opposed to abortion, partly, he said, because his mother had resisted pressure to have him aborted.

Zeffirelli had health problems in his later years but continued to work on a number of projects, including his memoirs in 2008. He was awarded an honorary knighthood by the UK in 2004 – Zeffirelli was always a passionate anglophile – and is survived by two adopted sons.