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Bob Ross, the Kowalskis & the Ethics of Biography

September 8, 2021

The documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed, which debuted on Netflix two weeks ago, raises some interesting questions about the ethics of biography, whether written or televised. The film, directed by Joshua Rofé, generally sanctifies its subject, the late American TV artist Bob Ross, while vilifying his still-living business partners, Walt and Annette Kowalski. Is this fair?

It’s certainly great television, even for the uninitiated. I had never heard of Ross, having grown up in the UK in the 1970s and 80s, where the BBC had TV artists of its own. But my Mexican wife, as an adolescent in the early 1990s, watched Ross’s The Joy of Art every Saturday morning, and she introduced me to Rofé’s film.

The first half I found bemusing as much as engaging. Ross’s landscapes, populated by “happy clouds” and “happy little trees,” have similar comfort-blanket qualities to those of the even kitschier Thomas Kinkade. On the other hand, his sunny TV persona evidently brought joy to millions and inspired untold numbers to take up a brush. Few if any will have become great artists but many discovered the “joy” Ross wanted to relay, and some found emulating his style therapeutic. There’s not much dirt on Ross, beyond marital infidelity; he was generous with his time, a loving if overbearing father, an all-round nice guy.

What lifts the film from pretty memorial targeted at fans to intriguing morality tale, about American ingenuity coming up against American avarice, is the growing sense of unease at the role of the Kowalskis, cofounders and co-owners of Bob Ross Inc. (BRI), a company established in 1984 to capitalize on Ross’s deal with broadcaster PBS, which paid little, by developing branded merchandise. Evidence mounts of a yawning gap between Ross’s satisfaction with his modest popularity and the commercial savvy, later the callous ambitions, of the Kowalskis. (In this respect the film reminded me of The Founder, starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, commercial genius behind McDonald’s.)

When cancer struck Ross in his early 50s, the Kowalskis relentlessly pressured the dying artist to sign over rights to his name and image. After this assault failed, they went to work on his half-brother and principal legal heir. Having eventually caved and sold out, thereby depriving Ross’s son and secondary heir Steve of any of BRI’s substantial earnings, the half-brother declined to talk to Rofé, citing fear of a lawsuit from the Kowalskis. Steve’s mixed-feeling reminiscences of his father, intercut with his youthful TV appearances next to dad, lend the film much emotional weight.

The Kowalskis – Annette, Walt, and daughter Joan, who now runs BRI – refused at least twice to appear in the film. They only submitted comments in writing, via their lawyers, at the eleventh hour, some of which Rofé dutifully includes in the final frames. But once the film appeared on Netflix, BRI issued a public denunciation. Here are their main complaints:

1. “the inaccurate and heavily slanted portrayal of our company”

Every biography, no matter how thoroughly researched and fair-minded, is somewhat subjective. Good biographers weigh all the evidence, using the sources available, and present their conclusions. But the multimillionaire Kowalskis chose not to make themselves available. The “heavily slanted portrayal,” if it is true, is thus a problem largely of the Kowalskis’ making.

And it may well not be true. A documentary or biography that makes an argument is not necessarily “slanted.” Sometimes the rich and powerful make poor choices and deserve to be held to account. And Rofé has gathered a preponderance of evidence of dubious behaviour by the Kowalskis: (i) Annette’s intellectual property infringement of the style and language of other TV artists when she published her own how-to-paint book; (ii) the couple’s trampling of Ross’s wishes that his family retain the rights to his name, as attested by several sources; (iii) the testimony of a former head of BRI’s European affiliate as to the forging of Ross’s signature on BRI-produced paintings after he died.

At times the Kowalskis shoot themselves in the foot, such as (iv) when Anne is seen in third-party footage ludicrously claiming that only she can identify a Ross original (what, not even his son can do that?); or (v) when they fail to attend Ross’s funeral; or (vi) when we are introduced to some of the deliriously tacky Ross-likeness paraphernalia that BRI marketed after the artist’s death.

2. “each [interview] request arrived replete with a confounding lack of transparency. At no time did they pose specific questions to Bob Ross Inc. or ask for any form of rebuttal to specific assertions they had decided to include in the film.”

Biographers, like documentarians, journalists and historians in general, are under an ethical obligation to offer right of reply. This, as well as his natural wish to enrich his film, is why Rofé sought out the Kowalskis at least twice.

But biographers are not under ethical obligation to provide questions in advance. A biographer’s fundamental duty is to the truth, and the truth is more likely obtained from an oral source when the questions are posed freshly. This is especially the case when a source has a record or reputation for litigious behaviour. As Jofé’s film notes: “more than a dozen people who knew or worked with Bob” declined to be interviewed for fear of legal reprisals. Had Jofé provided questions, he merely would have heard from BRI’s lawyers – which is ultimately what happened anyway.

BRI also effectively contradicts itself on this point by later admitting that since 2011, when it took part in a PBS documentary, it “has routinely declined to participate in any of the additional (dozen or so) Bob Ross-related film requests it has received.” That Rofé chose anyway to approach the Kowalskis is testament to his good faith.

The Kowalskis, meanwhile, cower behind the BRI corporate name. Their public statement offers no specific rebuttals to the film’s allegations. But they do claim that Steve Ross said nothing about his unhappiness with BRI’s control of his father’s image until 2017 – an observation that smacks of smearing a rape victim for not speaking out for 20 years about her traumatic ordeal.

3. “We provided a comprehensive statement, and the filmmakers chose not to use it.”

This is a lie. At the end of his film, in several title cards, Jofé includes several key rebuttals made in writing by BRI’s lawyers when the film was in completion. Moreover, “use” of a statement does not mean “reproduction.” In other words, the right of reply does not signify “the right to have every line of my rebuttal (or my lawyer’s statement) included in your biography.” Replies, oral or written, are properly sifted through for the most useful information and the most emphatic opinions, like the notes or recordings of any interviewee.

Legally-speaking, the Kowalskis may be entitled to their loot. Ethically-speaking, they have dug their own graves – and the consequences are already hurting BRI’s bottom line, if tweets compiled by Vanity Fair and user reviews at IMDB.com are indicators.

Biographers should not feel that by omitting the voices of those who refuse to be interviewed they have failed on ethical grounds. And Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed, available everywhere on Netflix, is an excellent and sometimes poignant film.

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