The latest Netflix documentary on Bob Ross exposes something on the legacy of the famous painter that many of us didn’t know. But don’t worry. You’ll walk away with this with a new profound respect and sympathy for Ross.
It’s no secret that family TV shows like Alf and Growing Pains were complete nightmares behind the scenes. Even a wholesome show such as The Andy Griffin Show wasn’t immune to controversy as Frances Bavier, otherwise known as Aunt Bee, wasn’t the best person to the cast and crew despite the motherly nature of her character on the show. Even Griffin said, “There was something about me she just didn’t like.” And who doesn’t like Griffin? Andy Taylor is one of the best examples of a TV dad and human being ever.
Bing Crosby and Joan Crawford were exposed by their children as abusive, both physically and emotionally. Bob Crane lived a life of sexual debauchery and hedonism that it’s believed to have led to his murder.
But like I said, Bob, may have had a few faults, but the documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal &Greed shows us a man who just wanted to paint. And unfortunately, some people took advantage of him. It’s very common among celebrities to find themselves exploited. Some artists just aren’t great business people and that’s where they’re often taken advantage of.
It happened to Britney Spears. It happened to Garry Shandling. It even happened to Elvis Presley.
Ross is shown mostly just as he was on the show The Joy of Painting. A veteran of the U.S. Air Force, he was stationed in Alaska most of his time. His first marriage to Vivian Ridge, ended in divorce in 1977. He then fell in love with Jane Ross, who was often with him as he was shown in videos and newscast.
However, there is speculation that Ross had an affair with Annette Kowalski, who would become Ross’ business partner. This is where the documentary exposes some things we might not have known. The documentary points the finger at Annette and her husband, Walt, who while helping him out, would go on to heavily exploit his paintings and likeness.
According to the filmmakers, there were about a dozen of people who refused to interviewed because there were afraid of being sued by the Kowalskis, who aren’t interviewed themselves.
Most of the interviewees are Ross’ own son, Steve, and his fellow colleague, Dana Jester, who were often featured on his show as guest painters. Sally Schenk, who was the director of the Joy show, is also interviewed and even though she describes Ross as “orney,” no examples are given. It would’ve been nice to see a more different side to Bob.
What we do see is a tense father-son relationship between Bob and Steve. It must’ve been hard on everyone as the Ross’ lived with the Kowalskis for some time when the show was starting.
Steve says his father wanted him to be a better painter and that led to Bob sometimes not painting as well. His friendship with Jester also shows a man who didn’t want to take the glory for himself. Some people may haven’t wanted to watch the shows where Steve or Dana were the painters, but there was a humble sweetness behind it.
That’s why the documentary is sometimes hard to watch as we witness Bob being taken advantage of by the Kowalskis, who have fired back at what’s portrayed. I’ve read their response and as a former journalist, it looks like your basic canned response issued. Maybe they should’ve bit the bullet and spoken on camera or maybe director Joshua Rofe should’ve pushed more.
It’s a shame that the Bob Ross, Inc. is actually a multi-million money making machine. While Bob seems like the guy who would’ve spent money out of his pocket to buy paints and brushes for any and everyone, his legacy is now a victim of licensing. And in this case, there’s some questionably licensing that suspiciously looks more like forgery and fraud.
If fans of Calvin & Hobbes wonder why Bill Watterson refused what could’ve been a huge fortune on the licensing of his comic, you need only look at this documentary.
One thing the documentary doesn’t delve too much in is how much Bob’s paintings, workshops and TV show helped people, sometimes through their darkest life moments. There’s something calming about his voice and his demeanor. Instructors and teachers are sometimes too critical and harsh.
Bob wanted to be your friend and he wanted you to be his. When he found out a viewer was color blind, he painted in colors to help that viewer and others. There’s a falsehood that if you criticized and make negative assessments of people, it’ll encourage them to do better. This isn’t true. It’ll actually discourage people. And despite what people say, a music instructor like the one in Whiplash wouldn’t have lasted one term.
Bob said that he learned from his years in the USAF, that there was no point yelling and screaming at people. When he retired, he said he never wanted to talk to people like that. I don’t doubt he got angry or upset. We all do. But he’d never go up to someone looking immediately for vaults and critique them.
People need encouragement. They need to know that their ways of doing things are important. Some of the best recorded songs have been covers. And like Fred Rogers, Bob was telling his audience you don’t always have to be the best if you just want to do something for enjoyment.
That’s the problem with our society. There’s too much competition. No one can do something just to relax for a little bit. We have people like the Kowalskis repeatedly telling us that we should profit off our hobbies. It’s crazy that people think your only involvement in the arts and entertainment is for capital gain. (But as anyone involved can tell you, you’re always expected to perform or display our talents, for free of course, to just get the exposure.)
If anything else, people should take away that they need to always read the fine print on anything. If people can make a dollar and a cent off of someone else’s accomplishments, they will and not see anything wrong about it.