‘It was shocking’: How did a Bob Ross documentary become so contentious?

Netflix’s film about the TV artist has caused conflict and a reawakened fight over his estate

Film-maker Joshua Rofé on his Bob Ross documentary: ‘I just want people to feel connected to Bob in a way that actually has more depth emotionally than they ever had the opportunity to.’ Photograph: Netflix

Making a documentary about the TV artist Bob Ross should, in theory, have been a pleasant meander through the life of a beloved figure – a cross between the United States’ Mister Rogers and Britain’s Tony Hart.

But when Joshua Rofé got to work as director, he plunged into a maze of ugly legal disputes, interviewees too scared to go on the record and bitter wrangling over Ross’s legacy.

This is the surprise twist in Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed, a Netflix film about the landscape artist who created more than 30,000 paintings and touched millions of lives before his death from lymphoma in 1995 at the age of 52.

“In no way did I set out to make a film that was a ‘gotcha!’ film,” Rofé says via Zoom from New York. “I just wanted to make a film that would represent this individual who is in many ways a mystery and yet completely beloved by so many.”


Indeed, the documentary starts as conventional biography, telling how Ross served in the air force for 20 years, learned a wet-on-wet painting technique from a close friend and became best known for producing tranquil nature scenes featuring “happy little trees”.

This fear of being interviewed was murky initially, but they made it clear that it centred around some form of legal retaliation and there was a corporate entity

With permed hair and balmy voice, he hosted The Joy of Painting on the American PBS network from 1983 to 1994. His words of whimsy included, “Every day is a good day when you paint,” and “We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents.” It was comfort television, like soaking in a warm bath, in the days when appointment television ruled.

Rofé says: “It was right size for the era. There was no Twitter. There was no Instagram. There was no Netflix and so to see Bob Ross was to tune into his show when it was programmed to be on television and he had a huge following.”

Ross was an “incredibly skilled artist” whose work elicits “a cosy winter feeling”, says the director. He recalls speaking to one person who found Ross’s show a refuge from arguing parents headed for divorce. “It was chaotic, a lot of yelling, a lot of fighting and their home life was rough, but when they got home from school and they could watch Bob Ross for 30 minutes they were completely detached from the angst that permeated the house.”

Now the artist is enjoying a posthumous second act as pop culture figure on the internet. Rofé adds: “If you fast-forward to around 2015, we’ve got the advent of streaming platforms and all of these apps and technology and now a whole new generation is discovering Bob Ross for the first time. He becomes an iconic figure, I would say, at a level that he hadn’t even reached previously.”

So far, so innocent. Rofé had been mulling a film idea about American artists and their relationship with American history when he was brought in by Melissa McCarthy and husband, Ben Falcone, both actors, writers, producers – and enthusiastic fans of Ross. The couple had originally conceived a biopic but, with information about his life sketchy, switched focus to a documentary.

Once Rofé and his team got to work tracking down potential interviewees, however, it was clear even this project would not be straightforward – less warm bath than shark attack. “I got two things back pretty much every time. One was everybody loved Bob and missed him dearly and then, two, they also let us know that there’s no way that they’re going to participate in a documentary about him because they’re afraid to speak about him on camera publicly.

“This fear was murky initially, but they made it clear that it centred around some form of legal retaliation and there was a corporate entity that they wouldn’t name. And so in that moment, I, like any documentary film-maker, knew that this was going to be something that I had to do and this was probably going to be more compelling than I even could have anticipated.”

Steve Ross, Bob Ross and Dana Jester. Photograph: Netflix

More than a dozen people who knew Ross declined to be interviewed for the film. The source of their fears was a couple, Annette and Walter Kowalski, longtime business partners of Ross during the glory days of The Joy of Painting. They helped build his brand but the relationship was messy. In the film, Ross’s son, Steve, giving his first on-camera interview, says: “There was an affair between my father and Annette, yes.” (The Kowalskis deny this.)

More consequentially the Kowalskis, who declined to be interviewed, now control Bob Ross Inc, the company that oversees the lucrative use of Ross’s name and image on paints, brushes and other merchandise. Steve alleges that, when his father was nearing death, the Kowalskis asked him to get Ross to sign a “memorial agreement”.

Steve says in the film: “It looked to me like they were trying to get Bob to sign his name over to them,” and claims this led to a furious argument. “You could hear him screaming, ‘I’m not giving you my name’… They literally wanted to steal dad’s name, and did.”

Steve says the Kowalskis did not attend his father’s funeral but exploited his cultural afterlife. He lost a lawsuit against Bob Ross Inc in 2019, leaving him unable to financially benefit from his father’s name or image. The film suggests that while the Kowalskis clearly have the law on their side, the morality is more ambiguous.

Rofé reflects: “It was shocking and then it was not shocking. It was shocking because you think, ‘Oh, my God, I did not expect that,’ and then the follow-up thought a split second later is, ‘Of course, art and commerce’. This is the oldest story in the books and this is just the way these things seem to go.

“You have to let the story guide you. You can’t dictate or manipulate a story when you’re making a documentary. It reveals itself to you and you’re there to just honour it, I think.”

I think of this as a father-son story and a reminder of what life could be like when we were robbed of years with our loved ones because somebody gets sick and passes away

Bob Ross Inc denies the allegations. In a statement issued after the documentary was released on Netflix, it said: “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.”

The company added: “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 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.”

Bob Ross. Photograph: Netflix

Rofé says he was disappointed by the Kowalskis’ unwillingness to go on camera. “We reached out a few times. They chose not to participate. They got to say their piece via a few statements that they provided to us. It would have been great if they participated. They chose not to and I stand by everything in the film completely.”

He adds: “People have a choice whether they want to buy a product or not and the film was not made with the intention of being a piece of advocacy. I just want people to feel connected to Bob in a way that actually has more depth emotionally than they ever had the opportunity to. He’s more than the 30 minutes on the show and he’s more than a meme.”

Ross fans will be relieved that his avuncular reputation emerges intact. And while the legal battle has garnered most attention since the film’s release, for Rofé it is not the emotional heart of the piece. The documentary includes a poignant segment about Steve making awkward appearances on The Joy of Painting and being put under pressure to follow in his father’s brushstrokes.

Steve recalls: “There was a power struggle between us, I guess you would say. There was a little bit of a fight that broke out between us. I wanted to go off and do my own thing and he wanted me to do what he did. There was probably a few years that we didn’t talk much at all. I’m still a little bit angry inside with myself over that.”

The pair reconciled before Ross’s death and Steve, like his father, now teaches art classes. Rofé adds: “In many ways, I think of this as a father-son story and I think of this as a story that is a reminder of what life could be like when we were robbed of years with our loved ones because somebody gets sick and passes away far too early.

"So for me, it really all goes back to the emotional connection to Bob and that certainly extends to Steve. The love and loss that is so present in the dynamic between the two of them in the film is really, above all, what I hope people connect with and walk away remembering." – Guardian

Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed is available on Netflix now