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25 years later, the surprising parallels between ‘Rigoletto’s’ writer and its main character

Leo Paur grew up fighting. Every time a challenge would come his way, he felt obligated to respond. “It was just the way (I) did things.”

SALT LAKE CITY — Leo Paur grew up fighting. Every time a challenge would come his way, he felt obligated to respond. None of his siblings reacted the same way, but for Paur, fighting was second-nature. “It was just the way (I) did things,” he said.

“It’s a simple matter of, ‘Who’s tougher, you or (the other guy)? Well, I am of course,’” he continued. “So you fight.

“I developed this crust,” said Paur, a screenwriter, director, history teacher and West Valley City native. “Even to this day, I walk in and think, ‘Gosh, who is there that I might have to fight?’”

Yet behind his tough exterior there is a loving and gentle side to Paur that goes beyond his appreciation for Shakespeare and classical opera. “I always had within myself this longing for other people to see what was really there,” he said. “A nice guy. A guy that would love to sit down and cry (but) couldn’t.”

Paur couldn’t cry, but he gave audiences that opportunity when he wrote the screenplay and directed the 1993 Feature Films for Families movie, “Rigoletto,” a tear-jerker influenced by his own growing up years.

The movie takes place in a fictional world inspired by (and filmed in) the eastern central Utah town of Helper. A small town — filled with more than a few small-minded people — is changed dramatically when a rich and mysterious stranger, Mr. Ribaldi, arrives. While many in town are threatened by his scarred face and rude mannerisms, a young teenage girl begins working for him and soon discovers his voice and soul are as beautiful as the townspeople believe his face and demeanor are ugly.

Mr. Ribaldi teaches her how to sing. All the while, the townspeople harden their hearts against him just as strange miracles start popping up. Love and hate gradually coalesce and crescendo into a beautiful but tragic ending.

“Rigoletto” was released by Feature Films for Families in 1993. The movie was directed by screenwriter Leo Paur and stars Ivey Lloyd and Joe Paur in the respective roles of Bonnie Nelson and Mr. Ribaldi. Entrapment provided by Debi Nelson.

As the film’s writer, Paur said the screenplay had many inspirations. His parents grew up in Helper, Utah, and every time the family passed through Castlegate and its stunning mountains on their way to visit their parents’ hometown, he imagined himself entering a magical world. He patterned the film’s young heroine after his mother, Bonnie Paur. He was introduced to Verdi on his mission and Verdi’s famous opera stayed with him. And so on.

But in the 25 years since the movie came out, even more parallels between Paur and his protagonist Ribaldi have emerged.

Paur worked on virtually every aspect of the movie from writing the script to casting to directing. If it weren’t for Paur, “Rigoletto” wouldn’t exist.

But behind the scenes, Paur and the film’s executives argued about the film’s details — arguments that Paur fought with the same intensity he displayed growing up in the schoolyard. Did a certain track too closely resemble a copyrighted version? Did the movie really need a song written in Italian? What characteristics of the film’s heroine played by Ivey Lloyd were truly essential to the character? Should the movie even be made?

Paur fought relentlessly for his vision of “Rigoletto.” The final product bears his fingerprints inside and out — but he burned bridges in the process. Paur’s aggressiveness angered many people around him, and he felt hurt in return.

“After ‘Rigoletto,’ I wanted nothing to do with the entertainment world,” said Paur, who has written two unpublished sequels to the movie.

Yet despite tensions behind the scenes, “Rigoletto’s” positive reception has lasted for decades. Paur’s brother, opera singer and actor Joe Paur, played the role of Ribaldi and has received thousands of letters from fans — especially in the Bible Belt where he said the film did very well.

“They’re (from) kids who have never felt special,” said Joe Paur. “And when they see the show, they feel special.”

The film definitely helped Joe Paur’s popularity. Sometimes fans would approach the brothers for autographs at restaurants — or rather, fans would approach Joe Paur while his brother went unrecognized.

“I think it killed him,” said Joe Paur.

Joe Paur would always point out his brother’s contributions to admirers, but fame being what it is, Leo Paur never got much recognition for the movie or his talents.

Over time, Leo Paur began to feel an emptiness when he thought about “Rigoletto.” While it was changing lives around the country, few recognized Leo Paur for the beauty he produced — just as in the film, few people recognized Ribaldi for the good he did.

“(Ribaldi) was quite cantankerous and misunderstood by the townspeople,” said Kurt Bestor, the movie’s composer. “Therein lies the conflict of the movie.”

And therein, too, is the conflict in Leo Paur’s life.

He spent his youth fighting to burnish his reputation for reasons he doesn’t fully understand. He recalled how he always seemed to rub people the wrong way, and yet engenders memories of integrity and beauty that brought his brother nearly to tears.

“There was a woman whose car rolled over and it started on fire,” said Joe Paur. “And everybody was standing back because they were afraid it was going to blow up. Well, Leo was the guy that went over and jumped on top of the car, reached down to the lady and pulled her out.”

Leo Paur, pictured here at the graves of his parents in Helper, Utah, wrote and directed the 1993 Feature Films for Families movie, “Rigoletto.” Photo provided by Leo Paur.

Just like Ribaldi, Leo Paur has a loving heart protected by a crust few penetrate.

“‘Rigoletto’ is about looking past superficiality into what makes a real human being,” said Leo Paur. “I think very few people have that ability. I guess that would be a real Christ-like thing to be able to look past the crust and look into the heart of a human being.”

Twenty-five years later, “Rigoletto’s” uplifting message, excellent acting and beautiful music still resonate. Yet a glimpse into the life of its creator — a man who grew up fighting but wanting to be seen for who he was on the inside — deepens the movie’s themes.

“(‘Rigoletto’) is Leo,” said Joe Paur. “This is what his heart is like. Behind all the gruff, this is what Leo’s heart is like.”

This article originally appeared in the Deseret News on October 10, 2018.

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

4 replies on “25 years later, the surprising parallels between ‘Rigoletto’s’ writer and its main character”

This movie was a life changing cornerstone for me growing up. I’m 30 now, and watched it today for the first time in 10 years or so. I watched it with my 8 year old little sister today and hope it again becomes a staple in her life like it was in mine. God works all things together for His glory. Scripture says “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of people, to be seen by them. Otherwise, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Matthew 6:1‭-‬4 HCSB
Leo Paur has impacted SO MANY people through out these 25 years. I have shared this movie with many people. Though Joe may have visually been the vehicle, the man behind it followed through with what was in his heart to do. Even if he never worked on any piece of entertainment again, this was such an impact, it has brought many memories and a moral message to many. I will ALWAYS share and love this story. What a blessing the Paur brothers have been in my life.
Thank you for Rigoletto

What a loss that the two sequels never got made! Maybe someone could be commissioned to turn the move and the two sequels into books?


Dear brother I am sorry for what you have gone through. I can relate in many ways. Just know that your movie touched many people. “Rigoletto” left a lasting impression in my heart at childhood that will NEVER go away.

Sadly, most only “recognize” those they “see” in the movies. Few actually take the time to recognize those behind the scenes. This same scenario happens to our Creator Jesus every day. Few people take the time to recognize Him and yet they give credit to a myriad of “entities” and “false gods”, etc.

May Jesus bless you dearly for the impact you have had on so many. It has not gone unnoticed!

Mr. Leo D Paur….
I’m a 71 year old widow, who loved watching your movie Rigoletto back in the 90’s….I own the VHS tape of it…I wore it out…it is truly my favorite movie…I done have many favorites….but you movie moves the heart and soul of a person that is open to the message of your words….I know I was and it has stuck with til now 30 years later….I have been looking for the DVD and found just today on Amazon…I have on hold in my cart til I can buy it….for so reason I find myself thinking and praying for you cause I felt like you have been sad for along time…I still feel that and find myself thinking about you and your life…then I say I need to watch that movie again and pray for you….the movie shows you how people think and instead of given the to know someone they have to be cruel…hurting everyone around them until their eyes are opened to the fact that they were wrong and didn’t take the time to see that someone was hurting and need love not hate…there are a lot if people who are hurting in silent in this world…but hides it under a mask….not matter who the person is we need to love and pray for them even if they are strangers…who knows we may save a life by just showing them that they are love….Jesus never reject anyone…we are the ones who rejects Him….he loved us this much….He stretched out His arms and died for us….He loves you too….you are SPECIAL in His eyes…..keep up the good work….and I for one would love to see you other parts of this movie…!!!

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