Bob Ross Documentary Filmmakers Ran Into Some Happy Little Legal Hurdles

Aug 25, 2021

Bob Ross — the artist known for his calm voice, poofy hair and unflappable demeanor — spent 31 seasons gently encouraging at-home artists to pick up their palettes to paint serene landscapes and "happy little trees."

Actor Melissa McCarthy and her husband, filmmaker Ben Falcone, were big fans of Ross and decided to produce a documentary about his life. But as they began working on the project with filmmakers Joshua Rofé and Steven Berger, they quickly realized their subject — and the legacy he left behind — was more complex than they knew.

From the outset, the filmmakers found that very few people were willing to speak with them about Ross, for fear of litigation by the owners of his estate. McCarthy says Rofé and Berger told her they had rarely encountered such hesitancy and refusal.

"That was when we sort of figured out, oh, boy, this might be a little different than what we thought it was going to be," Falcone says.

"When someone is an artist, no matter what their medium is ... there's a business behind it," McCarthy says. "And I would venture to guess that business is always much more complicated than the personality that they lead with."

Despite the legal roadblocks, McCarthy and Falcone moved ahead with the film — Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed will be released on Netflix on August 25.


Interview Highlights

On the success of the Bob Ross brand, past and present

Falcone: It was pretty huge and actually it continues to be so amidst the confines of a pandemic.

McCarthy: Way before we started the documentary, Ben's mom gave us a toaster that literally burns the impression of Bob Ross into our toast because we liked him so much.

Falcone: Bob became kind of a rock star of his time ... this guy who just had sort of a simple beginning, he really reached the top of a field that nobody even really knew was that much of a field. ...

McCarthy: His range was very unusual. I can't think of someone else that was enjoyed by people across such a wide spectrum.

On what they learned about Ross as a person

Falcone: If you do a quick Google search, what you'll know is that he was in the military. ...

McCarthy: He said when he left the army, that was the last time he wanted to raise his voice.

Falcone: It's harder to know exactly what went on in this man's life. But I was happy to find out that he was very levelheaded. He seemed like he was kind to everybody. But he also knew exactly what he wanted as an artist and what he wanted his show to be.

On Ross' business partners, Annette and Walter Kowalski, who were instrumental in building up the show and the artist, and who now lead Bob Ross Inc., despite litigation with Ross' family

Falcone: Who owns it is basically the disagreement. ...

McCarthy: 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. 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.

We've never intended to set out and create a hit piece. We like Bob Ross and we still do. We were surprised to uncover some of the things we uncovered. ... We found out things about him that we didn't expect. Nobody's perfect. - Ben Falcone

On the challenge of making a film while being worried about a lawsuit

Falcone: That was why so many people didn't want to speak to the filmmakers. Everyone's afraid of getting sued. So, 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.

On how Bob Ross comes across in the film

Falcone: We've never intended to set out and create a hit piece. We like Bob Ross and we still do. We were surprised to uncover some of the things we uncovered. And I think the filmmakers, Josh and Steven, really did a nice job of making kind of a complicated, balanced movie out of a character that is complicated. We found out things about him that we didn't expect. Nobody's perfect.

Jonaki Mehta and Sarah Handel produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to talk now about some happy little trees, or rather, the man who made them famous.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JOY OF PAINTING")

BOB ROSS: But it's that easy - that easy. What's so fantastic about this is that anybody - anybody - can put a little masterpiece on canvas with just a little bit of practice, a vision in your mind, and off you go.

CORNISH: That, of course, is Bob Ross on his TV show, "The Joy Of Painting." He was in it over 31 seasons in the 1980s and '90s. He's got new fans as people stuck at home during the pandemic have turned to a new Bob Ross channel online for comfort. Actor Melissa McCarthy and her husband and filmmaker Ben Falcone are among his many fans, so much so that they've produced a documentary about his life called "Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed." Falcone says that when they were thinking about launching the project, they looked around online for information about the late Bob Ross and found very little. So when they met with documentary filmmakers Joshua Rofe and Steven Berger, they were full of questions.

BEN FALCONE: By the time we met with them, it was about a week later, and they already had a bunch of answers, which is already impressive. They say, well, we'd already learned this, we already learned this, and we've talked to this person. And it's like, wow.

MELISSA MCCARTHY: It was - they went into - and they just launched into this immediate investigative state, and it moved very quickly. Once we agreed to do it, they really were like, we're on our way to Florida. We have somebody coming with us. Like, we have an - it all turned so tactical so quickly that I was like, this is such a different, exciting way of working but completely different from regular filmmaking.

CORNISH: I think that's really interesting. You expect to go into doing something where you're finding out about the life and times of this, you know, by all accounts, sort of gentle soul. And immediately, you're thrust into almost an investigative kind of space. And that's because there has been a lot of litigation around his estate and around the people who are in charge of his estate. When did you realize that this was something different than what you had sort of anticipated when you thought, oh, we think Bob Ross is kind of cool and we like to watch him paint?

FALCONE: You know, Josh and Steven, they were just hitting a lot more roadblocks than they're used to hitting in terms of getting people to speak about someone that they might have known when they were alive. So...

MCCARTHY: And we were curious because we said, oh, is that - you know, are these stories bad? He goes, no, they're just not willing to talk. Usually, if we have 40 people to contact, we're going to get most of those people to talk. He's like, we're getting, like, one person that is willing to kind of talk. And they were like, we've never seen this kind of hesitancy and just refusal to speak due to litigation.

FALCONE: So, yeah, so that was when we sort of figured out, oh, boy, this might be (laughter) a little different than what we thought it was going to be.

CORNISH: Just to set the stage for people, at the time, kind of hobbyist craft, hobbyist painting, it was, as the kids say, a thing, which I didn't realize the scale of it. Just how big did this kind of moment in pop culture history get in terms of people who like to watch painting and people who are, like, taking classes and the sort of industry that grew?

FALCONE: Well, it was pretty huge. And actually, it continues to be so, you know, amidst the confines of a pandemic and, you know, people doing things at home. And, you know, if you look at social media and the, you know...

MCCARTHY: The merchandise.

FALCONE: ...The merchandise.

MCCARTHY: ...The products - like, we have shirts. I have a toaster. Way before we started the documentary - but Ben's mom gave us a toaster that literally burns the impression of Bob Ross into our toast because we liked him so much.

FALCONE: And Bob became kind of a rock star of his time, you know? And once you see the movie, you'll see the kind of crowds that he would draw when he would go do a painting seminar. So this guy who just had a sort of a simple beginning, he really reached the top of a field that nobody even really knew was that much of a field, though it did get - it got bigger and bigger.

MCCARTHY: And his range was very unusual. I can't think of someone else that was enjoyed by people across such a wide spectrum that - I found that very interesting.

CORNISH: What did you learn about what he was like as a person? People may not be familiar with how he came to be a painter.

FALCONE: You know, I think if you do a quick Google search, what you'll know is that he was in the military. People did speak loud, and he decided he was going to speak softly.

MCCARTHY: Yeah, I think he said when he left the Army, that was the last time he wanted to raise his voice.

FALCONE: Right. But it's harder to know exactly what went on in this man's life. But I was happy to find out that he was very levelheaded. He seemed like he was kind to everybody. But he also knew exactly what he wanted as an artist and what he wanted his show to be.

CORNISH: Right. That was the premise for people who haven't seen it - that he essentially would paint a painting from beginning to end, seemingly without error, but maybe happy accidents, so to speak, as he called them. Walt and Annette Kowalski were Bob Ross's business partners, and they were instrumental in kind of building up the Ross brand in the beginning and, of course, later in terms of licensing. Not to get too into the weeds, but what was the disagreement between them and Ross's family?

FALCONE: Who owns it is the - basically the disagreement. You know, I think there was a court case. And not to give everything away, but...

MCCARTHY: Yeah, it's hard. You don't want to give things away. 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 and - because at the time, 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 before Steven kind of...

FALCONE: He didn't get to take hold of it.

MCCARTHY: He didn't get to take hold of it at all. And he actually didn't know about any of that until he was well into his adult life.

CORNISH: So right now, who owns the rights to the name Bob Ross?

FALCONE: The Kowalskis. Bob Ross...

MCCARTHY: Completely.

CORNISH: What was it like trying to make this film then, I mean, with the understanding that they really, you know, frankly, warned you not to kind of infringe on the rights of Bob Ross Inc.?

FALCONE: Well, frankly, we could all be getting sued right now just for talking about it. Apparently, there's so much litigiousness around. That was why so many people didn't want to speak to filmmakers. Everyone's afraid of getting sued. So it's definitely challenging to even, you know, talk to people about it or, you know, to go through it. And, you know, even as we're having this discussion with you now, you know, we've been kind of warned to keep to the basics, try not to get too into it because we will get sued.

CORNISH: Does it make you rethink that toaster?

MCCARTHY: Yes.

FALCONE: It does. You know, so we never intended to set out and create a hit piece. We like Bob Ross, and we still do. We were surprised to uncover some of the things we uncovered. And I think the filmmakers, Josh and Steven, did a really nice job of making kind of a complicated, balanced movie out of a character that is complicated. We found out things about him that we didn't expect. Nobody's perfect.

MCCARTHY: And there is a thing of when you know someone is an artist, no matter what their medium is, it's like there's a business behind it. And I would venture to guess that business is always much more complicated than the personality that they lead with.

CORNISH: That's actor Melissa McCarthy and her husband and filmmaker Ben Falcone. They produced the documentary "Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed."

Thanks so much.

MCCARTHY: Thanks for having us. And, yeah, I hope people enjoy it.

CORNISH: "Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed" is now available on Netflix.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSSA NOVA JAZZ'S "JAZZ NOVA CAFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.