Netflix doc paints the Bob Ross story in a new, different and unhappy light

Netflix doc paints the Bob Ross story in a new, different and unhappy light
image courtesy of Netflix

If you didn’t know that feel-good painting icon Bob Ross began and ended his too-brief time on this Earth in Central Florida, don’t beat yourself up too badly. Yes, Ross was born in Daytona Beach and passed away right here in Orlando some 26 years ago, at the age of 52. But many of the details of his life and death have become somewhat obscured in the push to sustain a multimillion-dollar empire in his name. And as a fearless new documentary reveals, that veil of mystery hasn’t entirely been an accident. Certainly not a happy one.

In Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayals and Greed, we learn how Ross’ legacy was co-opted for profit by his onetime business partners, Walt and Annette Kowalski. According to the testimony of Ross’ surviving friends and relations — those who weren’t too afraid to talk, that is — the Kowalskis helped make him a cultural icon via his long-running PBS series, The Joy of Painting. And then they ruthlessly went about securing the legal rights to his name, image and reputation — especially when it became clear their cash cow was terminally ill, but could live forever as a brand for them to own and control. Listening to the stories of how the Kowalskis allegedly hounded Ross on his deathbed to make his life’s work their intellectual property, you’ll think twice about ever buying any of “his” branded art supplies (or, God forbid, the official Bob Ross Chia pet). [Editor's note: Bob Ross Inc., the entity owned by the Kowalskis that currently licenses these items and more, reached out with a statement regarding the film, which we have appended below.]

The story also has dollops of adultery, divorce, depression and familial estrangement — everything you wouldn’t automatically associate with the Mister Rogers of art instruction. But for filmmaker Joshua Rofé, such deconstruction has become almost a stock in trade: His past credits include the series Lorena, a re-examination of 1990s penis-severing domestic violence survivor Lorena Bobbitt, and last spring’s well-received Sasquatch.

“I’ve just been taken by the idea of circumventing really, really defined expectations around an individual or a subject,” he says via Zoom. “These sort of household names that are just part of the vernacular — Lorena Bobbitt, Sasquatch, Bob Ross — everybody has an already predetermined relationship with those names and things. And once you dig in, you realize that story you had, and that everybody has, it’s so wrong. And it’s so much deeper. It’s so much more fascinating when you really examine something and give it some context.”

“He was screaming in a whisper via his television show, and really nobody had any idea.”

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Rofé’s latest exposé at first flirts with the absurd — as if a sketch-comedy writer had hit upon the premise “What if someone as famously benign as Bob Ross were profiled on Dateline?” But any inadvertent chuckles swiftly evaporate as the tale turns downright harrowing. At one point, for example, we learn that the Kowalskis tried to keep Ross’ funeral a secret even to some of those closest to him, to the point where only 30 people showed up. Were they trying to maintain the mystique of Ross as an infinite entity, commercial and otherwise? Or were they just being spiteful for reasons that made sense only to them? One can merely speculate.

“Cancer really ravaged that man,” Rofé says. “He weighed about 90 pounds. before he died. And to then hear that there was this alleged concerted effort not to really fully celebrate his life in that moment, and not to embrace the opportunity to mourn this man … when I heard that, I just felt sad.”

Even at its saddest, though, the film is a heck of a watch. It’s expertly paced, edited and scored. And its entertainment value is buoyed even further by Rofé’s canny choice to eschew the live-action re-enactments that are standard to the genre, in favor of painted stills that represent particularly dramatic and/or unseemly points in the narrative — the flipside of Ross’ own reassuring landscapes.

The doc’s most effective tool, though, may be Ross’ voice itself. The movie is peppered with clips from The Joy of Painting in which the star shockingly blurts out his life’s discontents while applying paint to canvas. Filmmaker Rofé credits two of his associate producers, Caitlin Hynes and Lukas Cox, with having reviewed every single episode of the long-running show to find the most poignant excerpts.

“The man was spilling his guts,” Rofé says. “He was screaming in a whisper via his television show, and really nobody had any idea.”

Rofé sees his film as “an exploration of complex grown-up relationships,” not contractual minutiae. He points out that it never accuses the Kowalskis of doing anything that was technically illegal. But immoral? Well, that’s another story.

“If Bob Ross were alive today, would he want his face to be on boxer shorts and breath mints?” Rofé asks. To him, the answer is obvious. But as his film also makes painfully clear, the issue isn’t always how happy a little tree might be, but who gets to call it their own.

(Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayals and Greed premieres Wednesday, Aug. 25, on Netflix.)

Public Statement From Bob Ross Inc.

August 25, 2021

Bob Ross Inc. takes strong issue with the inaccurate and heavily slanted portrayal of our company in the Netflix film, Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed.

Since the founding of Bob Ross Inc. in 1984, all of its equal partners – Bob and Jane Ross, and Walt and Annette Kowalski – shared the same goal: to promote and support the value of painting around the world. This was the company’s mission from its inception, through the latter days of Bob Ross’ life, and remains the company’s driving purpose after Bob’s untimely death over 25 years ago.

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.

Bob’s presence, inspiring positive outlook on everyday things, and his celebrated ability to provide serenity to audiences of all ages together, as accurately captured in the film, create the phenomenon we see today and are part of a business platform designed to nurture and amplify his gifts and turn them into the world’s treasure.

All of the products and merchandise seen today are just another way to share Bob’s message of positivity with people around the world. Bob Ross Inc.’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 and the joy he found in making art with even non-painters, too – especially children – through collectibles, toys and knickknacks, and he was the driving creative force within the company until his passing.

While the producers of the Netflix film did contact Bob Ross Inc. twice, in late August and October 2020, each request arrived replete with a confounding lack of transparency. At no time did they pose specific questions to Bob Ross Inc. or ask for any form of rebuttal to specific assertions they had decided to include in the film. Nor was it stated that they had a distribution deal with Netflix.

Had the filmmakers communicated with openness in their correspondence, Bob Ross Inc. could have provided valuable information and context in an attempt to achieve a more balanced and informed film. However, as the director and producers carried on with the production without the perspective of Bob Ross Inc., the final narrative lacks considerable nuance and accuracy and carries a clear bias in favor of those who were interviewed. After seeing media reports about the film’s summer release, Bob Ross Inc. attempted to reach out to the filmmakers in May 2021 to offer comment. They did not return calls or emails and finally responded through their attorney. We provided a comprehensive statement, and the filmmakers chose not to use it.

Specifically, in the film, Steve Ross says, “I have been wanting to get this story out for years” – a statement that shapes the overall direction of the film, creating the idea that he was previously prevented from doing so. Bob Ross Inc. never pursued or threatened legal action against Steve Ross, and, in fact, no one at Bob Ross Inc. heard from Steve Ross for almost twenty years, until 2017 when Steve filed suit against the company without any prior communication.

Bob Ross may not have shared the inherent structural features of his company with family and friends – which are very common in small private companies – resulting in many of the unsubstantiated accusations made in the film. Many of these baseless accusations attempt to relitigate claims brought against Bob Ross Inc. in 2017 by RSR Art LLC, a company owned by Steve Ross, Dana Jester and Lawrence Kapp, all of whom appear in the film. Those claims were rejected by a court of law in 2019. RSR Art then filed an appeal, which was dismissed at RSR Art’s request after the parties reached a settlement through a standard court-ordered mediation process.

In 2011, Bob Ross Inc. and its host PBS station produced a documentary together entitled Bob Ross: The Happy Painter to be used by public television stations during pledge seasons and to enhance their fundraising efforts. Because of Bob Ross: The Happy Painter, Bob Ross Inc. has routinely declined to participate in any of the additional (dozen or so) Bob Ross-related film requests it has received over the years.

Bob Ross Inc. supports a vibrant, worldwide art community by putting a brush into the hands of more first time painters than any other movement in history. We embrace fans that never intend to paint at all, but still crave Bob’s delightful personality and loving, positive spirit. We enthusiastically support the public television system, a true American treasure; art-related education and charitable projects, including with the Smithsonian and the U.S. Air Force First Sergeant Academy; and the new Bob Ross Experience museum in Muncie, Indiana. The efforts of Bob Ross Inc. and our dozen employees have allowed Bob’s incredible accomplishments and his love of painting to thrive – and we remain committed to enhancing his wonderful legacy well into the future.

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