A whirlwind of energy, Mr. Zeffirelli found time not only to direct operas, films and plays past the age of 80, but also to carry out an intense social life and even pursue a controversial political career. He had a long, tumultuous love affair with Luchino Visconti, the legendary director of film, theater and opera. He was a friend and confidant of Callas, Anna Magnani, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Coco Chanel and Leonard Bernstein.
Twice elected to the Italian Parliament, Mr. Zeffirelli was an ultraconservative senator, particularly on the issue of abortion. In a 1996 New Yorker article, he declared that he would “impose the death penalty on women who had abortions.” He said his extreme views on the subject were colored by the fact that he himself was born out of wedlock despite pressure brought to bear on his mother to terminate her pregnancy.
Franco Zeffirelli was born in Florence on Feb. 12, 1923, a product of an extramarital affair. His father, Ottorino Corsi, was a respected wool and silk merchant but inveterate womanizer, and his mother, Alaide Garosi, was a fashion designer who owned a dressmaking shop. Both were married to others at the time.
By one oft-told account Mr. Zeffirelli was named by his mother. In those days in Italy children of purportedly “unknown” fathers were assigned surnames starting with a different letter each year. He was born in the year of Z. His mother chose Zeffiretti, drawing on a word, meaning little breezes, heard in an aria in Mozart’s opera “Cosi fan tutti.” A transcription error, however, rendered it Zeffirelli. One problem with the story is that “zeffiretti” does not appear in the libretto. “Aurette,” breezes, does.
He knew his father only “in flashes,” he told The Times in 2009.
“I remember this gentleman came, especially at night,” he said. “I woke up and saw this shadowy man naked in bed with my mother.”
By one account his mother placed him with a peasant family, then took him in herself two years later, after her husband died. After she died of tuberculosis a few years later, he was sent to live with a cousin of his father’s.