The Dark Side of Franco Zeffirelli: Abuse Accusers Speak Out Upon the Famed Director's Death

Franco Zeffirelli_On Set - Photofest - H 2019
Courtesy of Photofest

Multiple men who allege they were victims of sexual assault by the 'Romeo and Juliet' filmmaker explain how the news of his passing at age 96 opens old wounds: "I can forgive him."

Actor Johnathon Schaech was clearing a tree that had fallen in his backyard in Nashville over the weekend when his phone began to buzz with messages. Italian director Franco Zeffirelli had died at home in Rome at 96, and Schaech’s friends were reaching out, worried about what news of the filmmaker’s passing might stir in him. One friend who texted was a Lutheran pastor from Long Island named Justin Vetrano, 45, with whom Schaech shares a painful bond: both men say Zeffirelli sexually assaulted them when they were young actors.

In January of 2018, Schaech became one of Hollywood’s few male #MeToo accusers when he detailed alleged encounters with Zeffirelli on the 1993 set of one of the director’s little-seen movies, the Italian drama Sparrow, to People magazine. Schaech said Zeffirelli sexually harassed and demeaned him during the shoot, and at one point entered the actor’s hotel room in Sicily while Schaech was sleeping and attempting to perform oral sex on him.

Vetrano, a former child actor now speaking publicly for the first time, says Zeffirelli sexually assaulted him in 1991, when Vetrano was 18 and visiting the home of his father's cousin, agent Ed Limato.

Reached by phone in Italy on Tuesday, Zeffirelli's son, Pippo, says of the men's allegations, "It's not a moment to talk about this. … It’s not the right time."

The men's #MeToo stories are similar to those shared by many actresses, and Schaech said he was inspired to speak up after Rose McGowan described an alleged rape by Harvey Weinstein (Weinstein has denied any allegations of nonconsensual sex). “He was brutal to me,” Schaech says of Zeffirelli. “I never believed in myself after that. It was like a life theft. But when he passed, I realized, I can forgive him.”

When he met Zeffirelli, Vetrano had been working as an actor since age 5, appearing in commercials and soap operas, with one of his most memorable spots a Jello Pudding Pop ad opposite Bill Cosby. Zeffirelli, then 68, was known for his lavish opera productions, popular film adaptations of Shakespeare and more-is-more approach to the arts. He had been nominated for an Oscar for directing the 1968 box office hit Romeo and Juliet and had directed a string of major stars including Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in The Taming of the Shrew, Brooke Shields in Endless Love, and Mel Gibson in Hamlet.

At 18, Vetrano moved from New York to L.A. to pursue acting full time, and moved in with Limato, whom he considered an uncle. Limato's friends introduced Vetrano to a glamorous and sometimes uncomfortably libertine Hollywood lifestyle, which culminated when Zeffirelli came to L.A. in 1991 to meet with Warner Bros. about potentially directing a Phantom of the Opera movie and stayed at Limato's house. "He was overly complimentary of me," Vetrano says. "He was a heavy drinker. He attacked me one night, wouldn’t let me leave a room. He sexually assaulted me. It went on for five to eight minutes. I was completely frozen and shocked and couldn’t believe what was happening to me. When I pushed him away he said I was nobody. I would never be a true artist. As a young actor, I believed what he told me." Vetrano says he didn't tell anyone about the encounter and quit acting months later.

The broad outlines of Schaech's story are similar, from the flattery to the aggressive, unwanted advance. During the making of Sparrow, Schaech was 22, did not yet have an agent, and was working on the set of his first movie. Schaech says the director was a mercurial figure, alternately complimenting him and grooming him with extra attention — even taking him on a tour of the Vatican — and then disparaging him. “He would call me names, tell me I was a horrible actor, a horrible person, tell me I was just there for my looks,” Schaech says. “He did that to everybody, women too. But when [the sexual abuse] happened to me, I couldn’t believe it.”

Schaech, now 49, would go on to appear on a 1996 cover of Vanity Fair featuring leading men to watch, in a photo gatefold that also included Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey and Will Smith. Over the last 25 years he has worked steadily in film and television, appearing in That Thing You Do! and as a regular on the Showtime series Ray Donovan, but he says the experience with Zeffirelli dented his confidence and played a role in his developing addictions to drugs and alcohol.

Both men say that before the director died, they reached out to his sons, Pippo and Luciano, whom Zeffirelli adopted as adults. “I called to say to Franco, I’ve come to realize what you did,” Schaech says. “His sons said he’s not doing well. He wasn’t able to talk to me.” Vetrano says his calls were never returned.

Zeffirelli, who described being sexually assaulted by a priest as a child in his 2006 memoir, first came out as gay in 1996 and adopted his sons, who had worked for him on various productions, in 2000. “I feel for Franco and the life he lived,” Schaech says. “He was confused for a long time. There was a venomous part of him that felt like he needed to share his pain. That was part of his art.”

Schaech was not the first man in Hollywood to allege that Zeffirelli sexually abused him. Screenwriter Bruce Robinson, who played Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet at age 22 and went on to write The Killing Fields, has also said that he was the target of unwanted sexual advances by Zeffirelli. In 1987, Robinson wrote and directed the movie Withnail and I, which features a lecherous old man he said he modeled on Zeffirelli. Zeffirelli never responded to Robinson’s allegations.

Schaech says that after he went public, five other men reached out to him via social media with allegations of abuse by Zeffirelli, including Vetrano. Schaech has since taped a public service announcement for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and is participating in a SAG-AFTRA caucus on sexual abuse taking place Thursday in Los Angeles.

“I’ve become this guy,” Schaech says, of his activism since speaking out about Zeffirelli. “It’s been brutal. People call me brave. I haven’t worked since. But I’m definitely happier, not holding the shame inside.”

Both men say reading news coverage of Zeffirelli's death has been hard to accept. "To see how the world hails the maestro who’s passed and ignores what he did, it has been very frustrating," Vetrano says. "My moment with Franco Zeffirelli changed the trajectory of my entire life."

Peter Kiefer contributed to this report.