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What Do Bob Ross' Business Partners Think Of Controversial Netflix Doc?

Bob Ross' son Steve accuses Walt and Annette Kowalski of aggressive legal tactics to cash in on the painter's legacy.

Bob Ross Netflix

What does Bob Ross’ former business partners think of a new documentary in which the famous painter’s son accuses them of stealing his name?

Spoiler: they aren’t exactly fans of it.

Netflix released “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, and Greed” on Wednesday and in doing so unleashed bombshell accusations about the painter’s seemingly serene life.

While Ross was painting happy little trees, there was apparently turmoil brewing in the background. The documentary details how Ross’ vision for his career and legacy contradicted that of his business partners, Walt Kowalski (who used to work for the CIA) and his wife Annette, whom his Ross' son Steve Ross alleges were motivated solely by money. 

Walt and Annette discovered Bob early on in his career and helped him create the show he is most famous for, “The Joy of Painting.” The Emmy-award-winning program ran on PBS from 1983 to 1994 and in each instructional episode, Bob completed an oil painting within 30 minutes. The company, Bob Ross Inc., was co-owned by Bob Ross, his second wife Jane Ross, as well as the Kowalskis. (As Esquire points out, the Kowalskis each owned a 25% share of the company and after Jane and Bob died, the Rosses' shares were distributed among their survivors, essentially diluting the Rosses' control and making the Kowalskis the single largest stakeholders in the company.)

But the relationship deteriorated, according to Steve, and is now marked by back and forth arguments over the legacy of Ross' name and image.

In the documentary, Steve alleges that his father had an affair with Annette, which irreparably damaged the business relationship between the two families. The Kowalskis denied that allegation to producers. Steve also claims that as his father was on his deathbed, three years after Jane died, the Kowalskis badgered him to sign over the rights to his name and image.

Steve maintains that Bob vehemently did not want to sign over the rights and claims that the Kowalskis used legal force and intimidation to obtain Ross's name from Bob’s half-brother Jimmie Cox and his third wife, Lynda Bridge—to whom Bob left part of his estate. 

In 2017, Steve filed a lawsuit against the Kowalskis after learning that Bob had amended his will shortly before he died leaving his son his intellectual property rights. In 2018, however, a judge ruled that Bob had already verbally handed over those rights to Bob Ross Inc., according to the New York Post. Steve was left with a modest settlement and the right to pursue his own art career under the Ross name.

In response to the documentary, Bob Ross Inc. released a statement Wednesday, stating they take “strong issue with the inaccurate and heavily slanted portrayal of our company."

Bob Ross may not have shared the inherent structural features of his company with family and friends – which are very common in small private companies – resulting in many of the unsubstantiated accusations made in the film,” the statement reads, in part.

The company states that while the filmmakers reached out to them twice, they felt they displayed a lack of transparency.

“Had the filmmakers communicated with openness in their correspondence, Bob Ross Inc. could have provided valuable information and context in an attempt to achieve a more balanced and informed film,” the statement reads. “However, as the director and producers carried on with the production without the perspective of Bob Ross Inc., the final narrative lacks considerable nuance and accuracy and carries a clear bias in favor of those who were interviewed.”

Bob Ross Inc. says they did provide a statement to the filmmakers in May but it was not included.

Since Bob’s 1995 death from lymphoma at age 52, Bob Ross Inc. has marketed everything from Bob Ross Chia pets to Monopoly games to clothing and candy. Their statement suggest the Ross merchandising operation will continue.

“All of the products and merchandise seen today are just another way to share Bob’s message of positivity with people around the world. Bob Ross Inc.’s hope is that items bearing Bob’s likeness and messages prompt smiles as they remind people of the love of painting Bob shared with all,” the company states. “Bob was especially eager to explore ways to impart his sweet persona and the joy he found in making art with even non-painters, too – especially children – through collectibles, toys and knickknacks, and he was the driving creative force within the company until his passing.”

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