Few public figures are more universally beloved than American painter and television host Robert Norman Ross. His series entitled The Joy of Painting aired for 31 seasons on PBS channels across the US, Canada, Europe and Latin America, helping viewers find inner peace and self-confidence through the therapeutic properties of art.
More than two decades after Ross’s passing, his legacy remains vividly etched in the minds of those touched by his guidance and gentle optimism. It is a legacy that, as actress Melissa McCarthy and filmmaker Ben Falcone would quickly discover, was not always so sunny as the blue skies Ross loved to paint.
Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed is a new Netflix documentary produced by McCarthy and Falcone, which was released to the platform this past Wednesday. Lifetime fans of the late painter, McCarthy and Falcone initially set out to simply produce a comprehensive film about his life. The direction of the project took a turn, however, when it quickly became apparent that few were willing to discuss Ross for the film, fearing legal action from the owners of the Ross estate. McCarthy elaborated on the unexpected revelation in an interview with NPR, stating:
“When someone is an artist, no matter what their medium is…there’s a business behind it. And I would venture to guess that business is always more complicated than the personality that they lead with.”
“That was why so many people didn’t want to speak to the filmmakers,” Falcone added. “Everyone’s afraid of getting sued. So, it’s definitely challenging. Even as we’re having this discussion with you right now, we’ve been kind of warned to keep to the basics, try not to get too into it because we will get sued.”
Bob Ross: Happy Accidents navigates its opening act with a straightforward depiction of Ross’s rise to fame, following a period of service in the Air Force. As the film reveals, many of Ross’s career milestones were achieved with the aid of Annette and Walt Kowalski, who seized control of Bob Ross Inc. following his death in 1995. In early 2021, the Kowalski family appeared in federal court amid allegations that millions of dollars had been earned through the illegal use of Ross’s likeness. These charges were filed by none other than Ross’s son Steve: one of the few individuals to provide extensive interviews for the documentary film. Meanwhile, the Kowalskis objected to the film’s production at seemingly every turn, pushing back against the critical light in which they were depicted.
“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 and Greed,” reads a statement from the estate to news outlet CNN. “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 any form of rebuttal to specific assertions they had decided to include in the film.”
Ultimately, the documentary runs along parallel tracks that capture the deep-seated nostalgia of fans, while still unearthing the stranger details behind the painter’s legacy and career. Ross’s life was one with many roots and branches, so much like the “happy trees” he loved to paint.
Produced by Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone, and directed by Joshua Rofé, Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed is currently available for streaming on Netflix.