Netflix's Bob Ross Documentary Explores the Dark Battle for Control of His Estate After His Death
This story has been revised to correct the timetable of events.
While Bob Ross has come to be known for his calming demeanor and stunning artistry, the painter's legacy after his death remains anything but picture perfect.
In the new Netflix documentary, Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed, a behind-the-scenes look is cast upon the late artist and television host, who died back in 1995 from cancer. He was 52.
Directed by Joshua Rofé and produced by Melissa McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone, the feature shows the dark side to Ross' legacy, following his career on The Joy of Painting and the legal battle that took place after his death.
There, Ross' former business partners — Annette and Walt Kowalski — gained full control over his estate and went up against the artist's own family for control of his assets and likeness.
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According to Newsweek, Ross first met the couple when Annette took a painting class during a time period when she was "desperately grieving" and "devastated" over the death of her son.
Striking up a business partnership with the Kowalski's, Ross then became a public figure thanks to his Emmy-nominated PBS series. Annette even appeared on The Joy of Painting, where she was introduced as Ross' "partner and long-time friend."
During the time that the group worked together, Ross, his wife Jane and the Kowalskis were shareholders in the company Bob Ross Inc. But after Ross' wife died of cancer in 1992, the shares were divided equally between all members, which made Ross "a minority shareholder in a company that controlled his own image," per the outlet.
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Just three short years later, Ross would go on to die as well. His son Steve stated that he spent the last years of his time alive trying to stop ownership of his name from going to Annette and Walt, which would make them the only owners of Bob Ross Inc.
In his will and testament, Ross left his estate and the rights to his name and likeness to two people — his son and his half-brother Jimmie Cox. The Kowalski's, however, would go on to counter the action, ultimately crafting a favorable settlement with Ross' son and Cox.
Annette and Walt then retired in 2012 and handed over control of Bob Ross Inc. to their daughter, Joan Kowalski. The documentary ends by noting that "despite Bob's intentions, Steve has not received any of the profits" from the company.
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In a statement to CNN, a representative of Bob Ross Inc. said in part that they take "strong issue with the inaccurate and heavily slanted portrayal of our company in the Netflix film, Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed."
"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," they added. "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."
Speaking with NPR for an interview, McCarthy, 51, reflected on Ross' legacy. "Bob certainly wanted it to go to — most of the business — to his son. He left it to his son and his brother. And very quickly, that was kind of taken through litigation," she said. "And because at the time [Bob's son] Steve was so young, Bob thought, you know, let's have an adult still guiding him with where he's going to take this company. ... But he didn't get to take hold of it at all."
As for fears of facing a lawsuit while making the project, Falcone, 48, told the publication, "It's definitely challenging. ... Even as we're having this discussion with you 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, Betrayal & Greed is now available to stream on Netflix.