It all started with film and TV star Melissa McCarthy and her actor-producer husband Ben Falcone each wanting to get an original Bob Ross painting for their respective birthdays, which soon led them down a very windy path to tell Ross’s story.
They had a shared love for the artist and instructor, who taught several generations his technique for painting tranquil landscapes featuring “happy little trees” while doing so in calming tones while rocking a springy afro on his series The Joy of Painting.
McCarthy remembers watching with her father as a child and then, “there was a whole second round of discovering the show again as an adult, where I found it incredibly soothing and bizarrely comforting to watch, especially hearing his voice.”
While his show and related art supply business were both widely successful and he portrayed a soothing calm on camera, the water was boiling beneath the surface as his business partners sought more and more control.
Teaming up with award-winning filmmaker Joshua Rofé (Lorena and Sasquatch), they worked tirelessly to tell the remarkable story of painter/instructor/TV personality, Bob Ross and how his charismatic PBS television show (often compared to the calming tones of Fred Rogers on his hit children’s show) attracted legions of fans around the world, who wanted to learn how to paint because Ross told them they could.
But like all good stories, Ross had a great deal of angst, including financial woes with his married business partners and his death from Lymphoma in 1995 at age 53, which culminated in a lawsuit with his son, Steven, and his other heirs for ownership of his likeness.
A remarkable aspect of the story is that Ross’ television shows are still popular around the world some 26 years later and that it meant so much to McCarthy to tell this story.
The result is the new Netflix documentary directed by Rofé and produced by McCarthy and Falcone, which is often compelling, uplifting, and also disturbing, titled Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed.
McCarthy recalls her excitement in discovering that “Bob’s son Steven was willing to talk to us; which was huge because he had not talked to anybody. The team made it clear to his son that they did not want to do a hit piece. “We were all on the same page, and we explained, ‘We are not looking to show the underbelly of Bob Ross. We just want to know who Bob really was and what his story was.’”
This included highly dramatic elements of infidelity, infighting, and illness, which he kept secret from many in his life, which made for a “compelling if heartbreaking, narrative.”
The filmmaker said making this movie was not an easy process because no one wanted to talk about Ross, despite their deep love, affection, and admiration for him and his remarkable career. “They all loved him and they missed him dearly, and they were afraid to talk to us on camera out of fear of some sort of legal retaliation by a corporate entity that they were too afraid to name during initial calls,” Rofé exclusively told Monsters & Critics.
“As soon as I heard that, it was obvious to all of us that there’s a really compelling story to be told.,” he added. “Bob was magical in his own very specific way, but there was something else going on entirely behind the scenes and this would make for a compelling film.
Monsters & Critics: What are the happy accidents here? It seems like Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone wanting to buy one of his paintings for one another as a special birthday gift, and Bob Ross’ multi-layered life; what’s your take on that?
Joshua Rofé: It is interesting how we all came together. A few years ago, I had been thinking of maybe making a documentary about various American artists and their own relationship and place in a specific time period as it relates to when they were at the peak of their powers, let’s say. I had thought of Bob Ross as a person to put on the list for the 80s.
I had a meeting with Ben and Melissa’s executive [producer] Divya D’Souza, who mentioned how much Ben and Melissa loved Bob Ross and that they had thought about wanting to make a scripted film about him, but during the initial research they discovered there really wasn’t much online, certainly not enough to form a screenplay. So, at that moment, I just sort of said, “Well, what if we made a documentary? Whatever there is to find out, that’s sort of what we do.”
M&C: What was your first meeting with Melissa and Ben like?
Joshua Rofé: It was one of my favorite meetings because there was nothing showbiz-y about it.
M&C: Please tell me about the interviewing process?
Joshua Rofé: It’s such a wild thing to discover because his show and his persona are just so peaceful and so comforting. People were afraid to talk about him. And their fear was some retribution, and they didn’t want to really go into details. And what I thought was so compelling was the real story; the actual story.
M&C: How did this change your approach as a documentary filmmaker?
Joshua Rofé: Well, in a specific brand of storytelling when only a few people will talk to you. It makes you think you should quit initially, but it’s actually the reason you need to tell the story. And it’s the reason the story is interesting in the first place. It’s something that can’t be Googled when you have only a handful of people who are willing to talk about it.
So, we very quickly came around to realizing that this is exactly why we need to continue and exactly why the story is one that really needs to be told. You tell yourself, “I can’t believe that this icon has maybe seven or eight people who are willing to speak about the intimate and nuanced details of his life so long after he has passed on.” I think this made us want to tell it even more.
Melissa is known for being an extremely positive person and a pleasure to work with in much the same way that Bob Ross was despite their fame and success – did you ever make that comparison?
Joshua Rofé: We never discussed how Bob’s trajectory related to her own journey, but the thing that I felt so strongly about both Melissa and Ben in that first meeting – and continuing to today – is there was just so much humanity from them. Particularly as it related to this story and their affection for Bob. They wanted to do right by him, and the more we found out as we were making the film, we all started to feel that even more intensely.
M&C: Can you please elaborate?
Joshua Rofé: Sure. The more we found out Bob’s hardships, the more we cared for this person who we were already such fans of. I just think beyond being hilarious, and a great actor, Melissa’s humanity shines through in a way that I think is stronger than most. Bob certainly had that in spades, as well. I think there’s probably something comparable there, and it all revolves around decency and humanity and these deep feelings around those things.
M&C: Did you find that the way Bob Ross viewed life and his belief that anyone could paint, are a good life lesson for us today?
Joshua Rofé: Yes. Obviously, these are incredibly trying times, and there is something incredibly calming about watching his show and hearing him say these things. Sometimes you just need to be reassured that everything’s going to be okay. Or sometimes, you just need to be told that you didn’t make a mistake. So often we’re all our own harshest critics, right? And Bob is really emblematic of that outlook.
M&C: Is this why you think people are still talking about him and watching his shows?
Joshua Rofé: Yes. I think that’s part of what is so enduring about him really and also his power to attract viewers and fans. He is just this reassuring voice that lets you know everything is going to be okay, and people need that. We probably all don’t have enough of that in our lives at a base level. And so, if you happen upon an episode of his show, you’re going to get something that you didn’t even know you came for.
M&C: You really don’t wrap everything up in a bow in this movie.
Joshua Rofé: This is a documentary. We all know that some things will remain messy and unknowable forever. It’s up to the rest of us to make peace with that. But what I think the sentiment that you’re left with is that Bob, and what he gives to people is a joy he can infuse into somebody’s experience when they’re watching his show or painting alongside is that is what triumphs at the end of the day. We’re left with his magic, and I think that is bigger than everything else that comes up in the film.
His son says at the end of the film; that his dad told him it’s not just about what we do here, but it’s about what we leave people with when we’re gone. Bob has been dead since 1995 and look how much joy he continues to give people. It’s unbelievable!
M&C: How do you feel personally and professionally changed by sharing Bob’s story, meeting the people in the documentary, and working with Melissa and Ben?
Joshua Rofé: Above all, I’m so grateful that I got to make this movie with the people I got to make it with. I’m really grateful that I got to be the filmmaker to tell this story. Working with my team that I work with, and Ben, and Melissa, and Divya, and everybody else was one of those experiences that I think is pretty rare in that we’re all just on the same page the whole time and we all had this one goal which is we really just wanted to do right by Bob. And so, I hope we did that.
M&C: Did you or any of your team members pick up paintbrushes?
Joshua Rofé: Yes, my producing partner on this movie, Steven Berger, he and I, followed along with an episode a little more than a month ago and did our lame attempts at a Bob Ross painting. Even though I have no ability as a painter and I would never show you a picture of it, it’s that bad, I have to say that it was so calming. I couldn’t do it in 30 minutes; it took me about an hour. But it was unbelievably relaxing and I enjoyed the process.
M&C: Do you think you’ll work with Melissa and Ben again?
Joshua Rofé: We’ve got to find the right story that we’re all passionate about, but I’d love to.
M&C: Why do you encourage my readers to watch this documentary, if they’ve never seen the show or whether or not they are familiar with Bob Ross’s work?
Joshua Rofé: I think at the core of this story is something that everybody can relate to, and that’s the relationship between a child and a parent. There’s a lot of beauty that can exist in that dynamic, but there’s also a lot of pain and sadness. I think at some point, we all need to make peace with the relationships we have with our parents and how complex they can be at times.
M&C: Did you talk to Bob’s son Steve after he saw the finished movie? What was his reaction?
Joshua Rofé: Yes, he had such a great response. He told us that he cried tears of joy and gratitude when he saw the movie, and he felt we had done right by his dad and by him. So, that was great to hear.
The documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed is available on Netflix.
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