ROME -- Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, who delighted audiences around the world with his romantic vision and extravagant productions, most famously captured in his cinematic "Romeo and Juliet" and the miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth," died Saturday at 96.

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 Opera in New York, and plays for London and Italian stages.

Zeffirelli's son Luciano said his father died at home in Rome.

"He had suffered for a while, but he left in a peaceful way," he said.

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. Claiming no favorites, Zeffirelli once likened himself to a sultan with a harem of three: film, theater and opera.

"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 Associated Press in a 2006 interview.

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 including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Mel Gibson, Cher and Judi Dench.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he was "profoundly moved by the death of Zeffirelli, who was an Italian ambassador of cinema, art and beauty."

Throughout his career, Zeffirelli took risks -- and his audacity paid off at the box office. His screen success in America was a rarity among Italian filmmakers.

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