The Dark and Strange History of Bob Ross
Bob Ross, the television painter known for his dandelion-fuzz hair and pizza-delivery approach to knocking out a landscape (30 minutes or less!) is still beloved, 26 years after his death, for the soothing way he dabbed what he called “happy little” trees and clouds onto his canvases. A new Netflix documentary about him—with an ominous title and even more disturbing trailer—has roused alarm among the Ross faithful that it will expose some horrific behavior that forever ruins those fond memories.
But while Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed does reveal some ordinary human flaws of the Joy of Painting star, Ross himself emerges largely intact as the gentle, kindhearted soul his admirers already know. The troubling parts happened mostly after he was gone.
The documentary, which hits Netflix on Wednesday, chronicles the bitter dispute that erupted between Ross’s son, friends, and business partners after Ross died from cancer at 52. Ross’s decade-plus of PBS shows had already made him a guru to countless viewers who followed his lead to become amateur artists, and the sale of pop-culture merch, as well as painting products bearing his name and distinctive likeness, continue to generate a fortune today. Also enduring since his death: legal wrangling, accusations of bad behavior and disrespect, and anger and resentment between the surviving parties.
“Whenever I tell friends or colleagues that I’m making a doc about Bob Ross, because they know my work and they know it’s usually pretty dark, they say, ‘Oh, my God, you’re going to ruin Bob Ross for me.’ I assure them that on the contrary, I think you’ll leave the movie perhaps loving him even more,” says director Joshua Rofé, whose previous docs include the recent true-crime series Sasquatch and 2019’s Lorena, about Lorena Bobbitt. “The more I learned about him, the more empathy I found myself having for this man, who I only knew from the show.”
The trailer itself is less reassuring. It features only a gray scale photo of Ross while creepy music tinkles in the background. The smiling painter then fades away as the voice of Steve Ross, Bob’s son, says, “I’ve been wanting to get this story out for all these years…”
The reason the trailer doesn’t feature any footage, Rofé says, is because fair-use laws allow him to use pieces of The Joy of Painting in the movie, but not in the advertising. (It’s not because there is footage of Ross doing something unspeakable.)
Nonetheless, the trailer provoked instant distress vibes in the week before the movie’s debut:
But Bob Ross didn’t hurt anyone. His absence did. The movie explores the question of who should have control over his legacy. In some ways, that has already been resolved; in other ways, it will never be over.
The courts previously reached a determination during an estate battle in the late 1990s that put Bob Ross Inc. fully into the hands of Annette and Walt Kowalski, who were longtime business partners of Ross, responsible for helping the soft-spoken artist become a multimillion-dollar brand. The film makes it clear that Ross was also determined to see his son, Steve, pick up the brush and carry on his work.
Steve, who was sometimes seen creating his own landscapes on the Joy of Painting, is featured in the doc. He expresses frustration over how the Kowalskis and BRI, now run by their daughter Joan Kowalski, have utilized his father’s identity. Steve was part of a lawsuit filed in 2017 trying to reassert control of the Bob Ross name, but he lost that case two years later, and an undisclosed settlement between the factions ended the appeal.
Steve Ross tells Vanity Fair that all he wants now is for fans to know his side of the story about how it all unfolded. “What was done to my father and family wasn’t right. Everyone knew it, but few would ever talk about it, even today, due to imminent threats of a lawsuit. I’d pondered on this for over 20 years and had all but given up on the facts ever being revealed,” Steve said in response to email questions. “I also believe the film will open people’s eyes to the exploitation of artists around the world.”
Exploitation is a heavy word; it’s not clear that’s an accurate description of what happened. An unanswerable question hanging over the movie is whether Bob Ross would have been “Bob Ross” if not for the Kowalskis’ management and business acumen. The company certainly doesn’t think so. Although the Kowalskis and BRI did not participate in the film, they released this as part of a statement to Vanity Fair: “If not for the efforts of the remaining founders and their dedication to this mission, Bob’s artistic and cultural relevance—and his expressed desire to become the world’s most beloved painting teacher and friend—would have been lost decades ago with his passing.”
BRI contends that the doc is an effort to dredge up old grievances. “Bob Ross may not have shared the inherent structural features of his corporation, which are very common in small private companies, with family and friends, which may have resulted in the hurt feelings and accusations that we understand are portrayed in the film,” the company said in its statement. “Again, without seeing the film, it seems that these accusations attempt to relitigate claims brought against Bob Ross Inc. in 2017 by RSR Art LLC, a company part-owned by Bob’s son, Steve.”
After noting that those claims were dismissed by a judge in 2019, BRI said Steve’s company “then filed an appeal, which was dismissed at RSR Art’s request after the parties reached a settlement through a court-ordered mediation process. There are no further options for additional appeals going forward.”
Nothing—not even a documentary, or a massive sway in public opinion—is going to change that outcome. Rofé said his film is more about exploring the ramifications of what happened, and how it runs counter to the feel-good philosophy Ross expounded during his life. “The disagreement at the core of the movie is not necessarily a legal one. It’s a moral one,” the filmmaker says. “Legally, the Kowalskis are absolutely the rights holders to the Bob Ross name. But the question that Steve Ross struggles with is how they arrived at that place.”
He contends that there was unrest as Bob’s illness worsened, which is why he wanted the film to “trace the steps of the end of Bob’s life.” “It was heartbreaking to think of this man, who was sick, dying from cancer, weighing 90 pounds, had to somehow muster the energy to have business disagreements while he was verging on entering hospice,” Rofé says. “I find that to be quite devastating, emotionally.”
Flash-forward two decades. The original Joy of Painting shows reentered the zeitgeist in recent years after being featured on Twitch and Netflix, where a whole new generation was charmed by Ross and his quick-draw landscapes. Steve’s main complaint is what he sees as the commercialization of his dad’s likeness. “My father was not so interested in material gain. His true agenda was to bring joy to the world by inspiring people to create their own works of art. Mainly he wanted to renew people’s hope, refresh their confidence, and teach his viewers a way to expand their belief in themselves,” he wrote.
Where his son might look at the Bob Ross Chia Pet as an offensive money grab, the Kowalskis see those things as a lighthearted way to grow the painter’s fan base.
“All of the products and merchandise seen today are just another way to share Bob’s message of positivity with people around the world,” the company said in its statement. “BRI’s hope is that items bearing Bob’s likeness and messages prompt smiles as they remind people of the love of painting Bob shared with all. Bob was especially eager to explore ways to impart his sweet persona with even non-painters too—especially children—through collectibles, toys, and knickknacks.”
Bob Ross is no longer here to speak for himself, but Rofé is reluctant to give BRI credit. “They’ve been very successful monetizing his name and likeness, but it depends on what your definition of ‘success’ is,” the filmmaker says. “Would Bob Ross himself want his face on boxer shorts and breath mints? I don’t know the answer to that. The people closest to him don’t seem to think so.”
Or…maybe, he would be fine with it?
As part of its comments, BRI sent Vanity Fair a handwritten memo from Bob Ross, dated September 15, 1993, asking Walt Kowalski for comments about plans for a live show Ross was considering staging in the family-friendly tourism mecca of Branson, Missouri. The “merchandising” section of the proposal does not specifically mention crock pots, bobbleheads or Chia Pets, but it does say Ross would sell “Relaxation Therapy Tapes featuring Bob’s voice, Tee-Shirts, Baseball Caps, Vest[s], Aprons, Easels, Soap on a Rope—a full range of tourist items…clothes, bed spreads, towels, toothbrushes and on and on…”
Of course, asking for Walt’s comment on that idea is not the same as saying “I love this!” nor is it a “hell no.” A BRI representative says the document is “all Bob,” with the typed portion of the proposal updated himself. That definitely suggests a comfort level with lighthearted merch.
Objectively speaking, so much of the ongoing disagreement stems from the two sides of Bob’s life—the personal and the professional—battling over who cares about him more. Even the documentary itself emerged from a place of love. Two producers of the film, actors Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone, got involved in the documentary because of their lifelong shared passion for all things Bob. The married couple began searching for original Bob Ross paintings to give each other as matching birthday gifts, but couldn’t find many for sale because BRI continues to hold most of them in private storage.
The one thing everyone involved in this conflict shares—including the filmmakers and the audience—is abiding affection for Bob Ross. They feel so strongly about Bob that they may never agree who has his best interest at heart. They love him so much that they can’t stand each other.
For Steve Ross, that affection for his dad comes with a particularly sharp sorrow, knowing he resisted his father’s efforts to pull him into the business when he was alive. This is another thing he makes clear in the doc. In footage of ’80s-era Steve painting on the TV show while his dad cheers him on, the young man clearly wishes to be anywhere else. Now, at age 55, three years older than his father got to be, he just wishes he could be back with his dad again.
“As kids, we all want to defy our parents and hang out with our friends. But as we get older, we begin to understand that our parents are pushing us to be greater than themselves because they seek the best for us,” Steve told Vanity Fair. “Like all young kids who know little about this world, I thought I knew everything as a teenager but had limited reference concerning what this world had to offer.”
“I had lost hope in the world and the decency of people, and knew that what could set me free was the truth about my Dad…an artist, a man of such integrity, who I deeply miss. I struggled a lot, and gave up painting for a time.”
The one happy ending in the film is that now Steve actually did pick up his dad’s brush—finding joy in painting his own mountains and rivers while teaching others the techniques he learned from his father. That’s not something he can lose or see taken away. “Painting is something in my blood,” he says. “Probably couldn’t get it out with a paint-thinner transfusion.”