Inside the vicious, secret battle over Bob Ross and his ‘Joy of Painting’

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In the 1980s and ’90s, artist Bob Ross and his TV show “The Joy of Painting” were an unlikely source of calm and inspiration for millions of viewers.

Over the more than 400 episodes shot in a modest studio in Muncie, Indiana, the therapeutic, bushy-haired painter would complete a stunning work of art in half an hour from start to finish. He crafted his landscapes while quietly uttering life advice and sensual phrases such as “caress the cloud” or, most famously, “happy little trees.”

Little did his fans know that, behind the scenes of the peaceful program, a ruthless battle for control of his business was being fought that raged on until just three years ago — more than two decades after his death.

The new Netflix documentary “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed,” streaming Friday, explores Ross’ innocent showbiz beginnings, unexpected rise to fame and the people around him who wished to cash in on his gifts.

Bob Ross’ face is stamped on countless products and ads, but a new Netflix documentary reveals his family gets none of the profits.
Courtesy of Netflix

In the 1960s, Ross was a member of the Air Force, and was stationed in Alaska with his first wife Vicky and young son Steve. It was in the “Last Frontier” where he became passionate about nature.

“Bob loved the forest, the animals, the trees,” Vicky says in the documentary. “I mean he loved it.”

And he loved to paint them.

Ross wasn’t the first artist with a TV show. The most popular of the day was William Alexander, a loud German who hosted “The Magic of Oil Painting” on PBS until 1982. Ross met Alexander, hit it off and became his protégé, teaching workshops for his Magic Art Company. One day, a woman named Annette Kowalski showed up to one in Clearwater, Florida.

“She was looking for something — and she found it in Bob Ross,” his friend Dana Jester says in the doc. “And it wasn’t just the painting. It was something bigger than that. She felt renewed, inspired by Bob.”

“I called Bob and I said, ‘I don’t know what you’ve got, but I think we ought to bottle it and sell it,’” Kowalski says in an archival interview.

And that’s just what she and her husband Walter, a retired CIA employee who habitually recorded all his business phone calls, did. They formed Bob Ross, Inc., became his business partners and gradually increased their involvement.

On his TV show "The Joy of Painting," Bob Ross would create a work of art in just 30 minutes.
On his TV show “The Joy of Painting,” Bob Ross would create a work of art in just 30 minutes.
Netflix

At first, the pair simply invested in his workshops, which were not very well-attended. While filming an ad for the classes in 1982, the station manager of WIPB-TV in Muncie decided Ross would make good TV, and thus “The Joy of Painting” was born.

The tiny show exploded. It was broadcast on 40 PBS stations nationwide; Ross appeared on “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee” and “The Joan Rivers Show” and was mobbed by fans during a 1989 meet-and-greet in Central Park.

The Kowalskis, the doc says, saw dollar signs. They wanted to sell paint and brushes branded with the lovable Bob Ross logo on them. (You can still buy these today.)

“Walt wanted to make good money,” Jester says in the doc. “More profit is what it’s all about it. He couldn’t cut any corners because Bob wouldn’t let him.

“Bob said, ‘I’m not havin’ products out there that are bad and have my reputation ruined for it.'”

So, Ross, Walter and Annette, who Ross’ son Steve alleges his father had an affair with, began to fight.

“There [were] many, many arguments about this over the phone,” Steve says. “He wanted to teach people how to paint, but through the selling of products, they wanted to exploit that for profit.”

He slowly lost hold of his enterprise. And when Ross was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1994, the couple allegedly didn’t want anybody to know.

“During that time, I think the Kowalskis became worried,” Steve says. “If Bob dies, their business dies.”

While he battled cancer, Ross filmed a small guest spot on a children’s show called “The Adventures of Elmer & Friends.”

When it aired two months after Ross’ death in 1995, the Kowalskis and Bob Ross, Inc. sued the cute show for more than half a million dollars. According to a damning story by the Daily Beast, the couple asserted that their company owned not just “The Joy of Painting” and his paints and paintbrushes, but also Bob Ross’ name and likeness.

The lawyer for the deceased Ross, however, provided a tape-recorded phone call in which the Kowalskis gave him permission to do the show as evidence. They settled out of court, and the true owner of Ross’ persona stayed in limbo for years.

But Ross’ son Steve opened another lawsuit in 2012, after he made the shocking discovery that his father left him his intellectual property rights in a late addition to his will before he died.

Steve Ross visits his father Bob Ross' grave.
Steve Ross visits his father Bob Ross’ grave.
Netflix

Then, in 2018, a judge finally ruled that Ross had verbally handed all control over to Bob Ross, Inc., before he died. So, Steve was left only with a small settlement, and permission to pursue art professionally using the Ross name.

It’s become a very lucrative moniker for Bob Ross, Inc., now run by the Kowalskis’ daughter Joan. Beyond the funny Chia Pets and mugs with his face stamped on them, there are the streaming deals with Twitch, Tubi and YouTube, a Mountain Dew commercial, a parody in “Deadpool,” and much more. Ross is everywhere — a drag queen named Utica even played him on a recent season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” — and his own flesh and blood won’t see a dime of profit.

“What they did was shameful,” Steve says. “And people should know that.”

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