Television artist Bob Ross just wanted to share his love of painting with viewers. His business partners had other ideas.
Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed premiers on Netflix on August 25.
Here are a few tidbits about Bob Ross, the soft-spoken, bushy-haired, jeans-wearing host of The Joy of Painting, which ran for 403 episodes on PBS from 1983 to 1994. He was born in Florida in 1942. He died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in Florida in 1995, possibly due to constant exposure to the paint thinner he used on his show. Before his run as “Americas’ favorite art instructor,” he was a master sergeant in the Air Force. He took painting lessons from and eventually worked as a traveling art instructor for William Alexander, whose PBS show The Magic of Oil Painting predated his. He regularly rehabilitated injured animals. He loved fast cars, and owned a 1969 Stingray with a 350 engine.
A glimpse at the title of this documentary might suggest that he had a dark side that was hidden from his legions of fans. But that’s not the case. Sure, among the many folks appearing in the film to share memories, his son Steve admits that his dad and mom — Vicky — “had a pretty shaky relationship” and were divorced. And The Joy of Painting director Sally Schenck reveals, while laughing, that Bob “could be ornery” by telling dirty jokes in the studio just before going on the air.
So, no, there’s nothing here that’s going to radically tarnish the image of the happy fellow with the large, translucent palette, a few brushes, a palette knife, a talent for quickly creating landscapes, and a pleasing outlook that included telling viewers that “You, too, can paint almighty pictures,” and graciously welcoming them back each week.
The title refers to other people around him, specifically to Annette and Walt Kowalski, Ross’s business partners. Annette, who was a student in one of his William Alexander workshops, was inspired by him, and in time, she and Walt put together Bob Ross Inc., backing Ross’s own workshops and launching his TV career in Muncie, IN. The Kowalskis would run the business enterprise — including the merchandising of paints and brushes — while Ross would connect with people.
“I paint because I can create the kind of world that I want, and I can make this world as happy as I want it to be,” says a beaming Ross, early on in his career.
“I wonder how Bob’s life might have turned out if he never met the Kowalskis,” says his longtime friend and former teacher John Thamm.
“I’ve been wanting to get this story out for all these years. What they did was shameful, and people should know that,” says Steve Ross, softly, bitterly.
It’s a nasty chronicle about a man with good intentions who was being taken advantage of by some shady people while he was on his way up and especially later, when illness weakened him and he couldn’t fight back.
But this isn’t an all doom and gloom documentary. It’s an entertaining and perceptive look at how Ross and his show became immensely popular with viewers. It brims with clips of him at his easel, painting landscape after landscape and using his encouraging attitude to address viewers as if each one were a private student.
Steve talks about his dad’s various hairstyles over the years — before the Afro caught on — and it’s a little odd to see photos of Ross with a slicked-back coif. The filmmakers also include just enough old footage contrasting William Alexander and his comparatively harsher instructing style (“FIRE it in there!) with Ross’s whispery approach (“Let’s put a few highlights up there, barely touching”). A wonderful bonus is the brief inclusion of Ross communing with his pet squirrel Peapod.
But while the number of PBS stations carrying the show kept rising, and the Ross workshops regularly filled up with painters, the specter of the Kowalskis also expanded.
There are suggestions in some of the film’s interviews that there might have been more than just a business relationship between Ross and Annette Kowalski. Steve says that Bob “was interested in success, but not the same way the Kowalskis were.” John Thamm adds, “Bob Ross Inc. was more about selling paints, canvas, and brushes than instructing people how to become painters.” Dana Jester, a painter and longtime friend of Bob’s, says directly to the filmmakers, “A lot of people are backing out of doing interviews because they’re afraid of being sued by the Kowalskis.”
When the subject turns to how Ross handled the death of his second wife, Jane — he spoke about it to his viewers, in the middle of a show — and then to his own life-threatening diagnosis just a few weeks later, Steve says, “During that time, the Kowalskis were worried that if Bob dies, then the business dies.”
For most of its remaining running time, the film is uncomfortable to watch. Ross did his show as long as he could, and had plans for a different version that would have been less taxing on him. He also tried to put plans in place that would keep his company and his family in good shape after he was gone. But the Kowalskis — who refused to participate in the film, but are seen and heard in old footage — had other plans, which included stealing the Ross name and eliminating any possible competition.
It’s wonderful that the gentle voice and positive attitude of Ross floats in and out through the film, even as it turns into a study of heartless snakes.
Ed Symkus has been reviewing films and writing about the arts since 1975. A Boston native and Emerson College graduate, he co-wrote the book Wrestle Radio, USA: Grapplers Speak, went to Woodstock, collects novels by Harry Crews, Sax Rohmer, and John Wyndham, and has visited the Outer Hebrides, the Lofoten Islands, Anglesey, Mykonos, the Azores, Catalina, Kangaroo Island, and the Isle of Capri with his wife Lisa.
His favorite movie is And Now My Love. His least favorite is Liquid Sky, which he is convinced gave him the flu. He can be seen for five seconds in The Witches of Eastwick, staring right at the camera, just like the assistant director told him not to do.