'An obsessive, mischievous genius': actors pay tribute to Franco Zeffirelli

Brooke Shields, Robert Powell, Jeremy Irons and Fanny Ardant share their memories of working with the virtuoso director

Brooke Shields on Endless Love: ‘It was: more, more, more’

He was very tough but in a loving way. Franco was always wanting and expecting more from me. You want your director to have enough faith in you that they urge you to be your best. Not all directors are like that. Then there was another side to him that was very playful – there were in-jokes and many meals together. He would eat risotto con piselli and flatten out the rice to carve a perfect profile. He wouldn’t eat risotto without doing it.

Franco tried to trick me with little tactics, surprising me with something or telling my co-star Martin Hewitt to kind of slap me in the middle of a scene to get a rise out of me. I would see a trick coming a mile away and would shut down. I said to him: “That’s not going to work. You’re not going to get the reaction you know you want from me.” We finished the movie and months later came back and reshot the ending. I was so mad that we had to do it but it ended up being one of the best scenes. You learned to trust him because you knew he wouldn’t walk away until he’d got what he wants. Over the years I’ve realised how lazy other directors can be. I got spoilt early by Louis Malle and Franco. I don’t think I could have articulated it at the time but I was intuitive enough to know that this was something that was worth all the effort and discomfort.

Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt in Endless Love (1981).
Angst and drama … Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt in Endless Love (1981). Photograph: Universal/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

Wanting to get a rise out of Elizabeth Taylor, Franco made her sit next to me at the premiere because I was said to be “the next Elizabeth Taylor”. You could see him needling her. He loved angst and drama among all of us.

With Franco, there was this quest. It was: more, more, more; better, better, better. “I am the master!” He projected himself that way all the time. I think he was rather insatiable partly because of his ego and partly because of his passion and talent. He was avaricious with regard to producing, creating, continuing the work. We walked into La Scala to see one of his productions and you would have thought that God had just walked down the aisle. The applause, the standing ovation … he loved it!

Franco Zeffirelli and Robert Powell.
‘My instant reaction was no’ … Franco Zeffirelli and Robert Powell. Photograph: PA

Robert Powell on Jesus of Nazareth: ‘We let the audience do the work’

When my agent rang and said would I go and see Franco Zeffirelli about Jesus of Nazareth, my instant reaction was no. I’d been to see him for Brother Sun, Sister Moon and hadn’t got a part. Arrogantly I said I didn’t want to meet him. The call came again: would I do a screen test? It was a bit of a fiasco: blond wig, false beard, all that caper. After the test I rang my agent and said, ‘We can forget that.’ Two weeks later we got another call: Franco was coming over to England.

Jesus was an impossible part, an impossible story. The best you can hope for with something like that is to get away with it. We worked together very closely. Franco didn’t know how to do it and I certainly didn’t. The first couple of weeks’ filming we threw away. We’d discussed first our intention to try and portray the divinity of Christ but also see if we could find the man. That was a bit of a mistake. You end up with something that’s really rather ordinary. It’s just another bloke – a nice bloke, but still a bloke.

Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth (1977).
Something extraordinary … Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth (1977). Photograph: NBC via Getty Images

The story needs something extraordinary. We decided to let the audience do the work. Rather than “give a performance”, I virtually didn’t do anything. I didn’t make any comment on the character but just delivered the lines. This was Franco’s genius. Afterwards, I got 10,000 letters saying the same thing: “This is exactly how I imagined Jesus to be.” That’s not possible – unless they are all imagining their own Jesus because there is a blank canvas there.

Not only was he a film, theatre and opera director but he was also a supreme artist. I have copies of his hand-drawn storyboards for Jesus of Nazareth. He did them way before we started on the film, and they are replicated on the screen.

Perfection drove Franco: an absolute obsession with getting it right. Working with Ken Russell was similar. They would not tolerate anything that is not exactly as it needs to be. It gave them a terrible reputation for being difficult – which they were. They were bloody impossible to work with! Once you understand the rules it becomes a joy. You, too, refuse to accept anything that isn’t exactly as you want it to be.

We remained very close. He has left a huge hole in our lives: Franco was godfather to my children and invited us all to Positano on family holidays – we spent several consecutive years there. He was extraordinarily humane and generous and warm and loving.

Franco Zeffirelli, Fanny Ardant and Jeremy Irons during filming of Callas Forever (2002).
‘A joy’ … Franco Zeffirelli, Fanny Ardant and Jeremy Irons during filming of Callas Forever (2002). Photograph: Allstar/Medusa/Sportsphoto Ltd

Jeremy Irons on Callas Forever: ‘It was his requiem for her’

Franco was a delicious mixture of kindness, brilliance and mischief. The first time I was invited to his villa in Rome, I arrived as Nureyev was leaving. Putting on his coat, he leant over and whispered in my ear: “When are you coming out of the closet?” I was too gobsmacked to answer, and he was gone.

We talked about filming Wuthering Heights as we stayed with him in Positano. My wife Sinéad had just finished a film with him. He was a generous host. Later we worked on the translation of Callas Forever for many happy days in his garden in Rome. The shooting with Fanny Ardant in Romania was a joy, with Franco providing wonderful daily Italian lunches in his cottage in the studio grounds. Callas was involved in a production of Carmen in the film, and it was clear that his heart lay in filming those scenes, more than the life scenes that made up most of the film. He had been very close to Callas and I think he felt this film was his requiem for her.

The studio grounds were full of wild dogs, many in pup. Franco adopted I think six, and flew them back to Rome. As a senator he had a law passed protecting wild dogs. As shooting on Callas Forever neared its end, I learned that, due to his health issues, the insurers had insisted he nominate a replacement should he be unable to finish the film. Unbeknown to me he had put my name in the box. Although, thank God, I was never called upon, that trust cemented our friendship. He was, I suppose, the last director in that great wave of Italian film-making, and both as a friend and a genius, Sinéad and I mourn his passing.

Fanny Ardant as Maria Callas.
Artistic richness … Fanny Ardant as Maria Callas. Photograph: Lucherini-Pignatelli/epa

Fanny Ardant on Callas Forever: ‘A great artistic adventure’

As soon as I met Franco Zeffirelli, I loved him. His intelligence, his culture, his generosity, his love for beauty and his passion. I loved to see him laugh, be moved and get angry and I listened to him talk about everything: cities, writers, dogs, flowers and human beings, life and death, his memories of childhood and home, of theatre and painting, his love for life. I loved his sense of irony, his bad faith, his keen eye and ear, his artistic richness, his freedom of thought and his courage. He gave me one of my biggest artistic adventures.


Chris Wiegand

The GuardianTramp

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