Bob Ross documentary director says TV icon's friends were afraid to be interviewed
The Netflix documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed (premieres Aug. 25) tracks the life and career of the beloved TV painter and teacher, who died in 1995 as the result of lymphoma. Director Joshua Rofé's film also details the David-and-Goliath legal battle over Ross' legacy which broke out between the late artist's son Steve and the owners of Bob Ross Inc., which has become a powerful presence in the painting supplies market.
"We started to reach out to people who knew and worked with Bob and two things became really clear," says Rofé, who teamed with producers Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone on the project. "One, was that they loved Bob and, two, was that they were afraid to speak about him publicly."
Below, Rofé talks more about the film, what he found out about his subject, and why his fondness for Ross has not helped him become the next Michelangelo.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get involved in the project?
JOSHUA ROFE: My producing partner, Steven Berger, and I met with Ben Falcone and Melissa McCarthy's [production] executive Divya D'Souza. During this meeting, Divya brought up how much Ben and Melissa loved Bob Ross, and that they'd been interested in making a scripted film about him, but when they did a cursory search online there was just very little information that could be found. This overlapped with a germ of an idea that I had about making a documentary that told stories of various artists in different time periods in American history. I was intrigued, and we sat down with Ben and Melissa, and we started having conversations about how much humanity we could see in Bob even though we knew next to nothing about him. So we left that meeting saying, "Let's see what there is in terms of a story."
The second that people expressed any sort of trepidation or fear around speaking about him publicly, that's it, I was in. I knew I had to make this film because I wanted to know why. In the wake of his passing, all these years later, here are people who loved him who were afraid to speak about him. I felt there was no question that this will yield an interesting story. It was all around fear of this legal retaliation in those initial phone calls [and] the legalities are obviously key parts of the story. But what I was more interested in was the morality and the battle as it related to that. You know, what was right and wrong as it related to the life rights of this man, who [in the lead up to his death was] essentially in hospice, dying of cancer weighing 90 pounds? It was that stuff that I felt was really going to be at the heart of this film.
What did you find out about Bob Ross himself?
He was much livelier offscreen than he was onscreen. He was somebody who seemed to really relish being engaged in life in a way that was infused with a higher level of energetic charisma than you see on the show. He was just a guy who loved life and loved to be around people.
Was it difficult to locate footage of him?
Yeah, for sure. When we tried to take the usual channels that you would when you're making a documentary, the archival houses [and] the channels that you would usually use to find pieces, they had next to nothing. We ended up getting really lucky because there were people who were really close to him, like his son and his best friend, they have this great home movie footage. They have footage that really doesn't exist anywhere else and that nobody's ever seen before.
Do you paint yourself? Or were you tempted to pick up a brush in the course of making the film?
I am an absolutely pathetic painter who has done it barely at all. But I followed along with an episode with Bob and painted alongside him and he was much better than I am, obviously. It's not something that I am particularly adept at. No.
Watch an exclusive clip from Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed above.