Current Trends - Recently-Released Netflix Documentary on Bob Ross' Estate - Episode 16
Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners –This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. Welcome back – for another episode of Legal Tea! Today’s topic is a current trend … something going on in current time, that is pertinent to my world. Well today’s topic is not actually going on CURRENTLY – but I stumbled upon it thanks to a team member of mine (at the office) who called my attention to a recently-released documentary released on Netflix on Bob Ross. You know the guy that famously painted for a living – he always painted pieces on nature – trees, cabins, mountains, etc. He was known for his permed hair & even today, you can get a chia pet with his face and hair….
The documentary is perfectly titled, too …. “Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed.” One of the things you used to always say was, “We don’t make mistakes – just happy little accidents!” Thinking like that, I think Bob and I should have been friends. I’m a glass-half-full kind of gal myself! (By the way, if you care to check it out, there is a direct link to the Netflix page for the documentary in the episode source links.)
The documentary starts off by introducing us to Bob’s son, Steve, and Steve shares about his mother, Vivian (also known as and mostly referred to as Vicky), who Bob was married to for a handful of years. According to Bob Ross’ Wikipedia page, Bob and Vicky were married from 1965 until 1977, when they divorced. Within the same year of the divorce (1977), Bob remarried and her name was Jane. Bob and Jane maintained their marriage for a good long time (until Jane’s passing which we’ll get to in a bit).
After introducing us to Steve, the documentary introduces us to a fellow artist and dear friend of Bob, John Thamm. They met when Bob took a painting class from John, actually. Anyway, John shared that Bob was inspired by an artist by the name of William Alexander. Bob once said on his show that “It almost made me angry the first time I saw Alexander on TV … That he could in a matter of minutes what took me days to do.”
Bob and William’s worlds collided, and soon after, Bob (after retiring from the military) began teaching “how to paint” alongside William. It was there that Bob met a lady by the name of Annette Kowalski when she attended one of those painting classes.
Annette, after recently losing her son, sort of latched on to painting as a grieving device – and as a byproduct of that, she latched on to Bob and her and her husband, Walt Kowalski. Actually, according to a Daily Beast article, Annette shared to NPR one time that she was “so mesmerized by Bob. Somehow he lifted me up out of that depression. I just think that Bob knew how to woo people. I said, ‘Let’s put it in a bottle and sell it.’”
Shortly after the documentary introduced us to the Kowalskis, a caption took over the screen and it said:
“More than a dozen people who knew and worked with Bob declined to participate in this film due to concerns of legal retaliation.” It was clear that … they were concerned about legal retaliation by the Kowalskis."
Fast forward some time, Bob started painting on a show called “The Joy of Painting” which, according to the Wikipedia on Bob Ross, was filmed at a PBS studio in Muncie, Indiana. Hey there, nice little Indiana shout-out for us Hoosiers! Anyway, after the show started, his painting classes and workshops got full – like really, really full. Between the show and the classes/workshops, Bob sure made a name for himself – and became, sort of, a household name. Many people knew and recognized the name Bob Ross – “that guy that paints on TV!”
The documentary shared that Bob “did his thing” – he painted and connected with people – and the Kowalskis took care of the “business aspect” for Bob. For example, a products line was started in Bob’s name – you know, things like paint, brushes, etc. The documentary actually stated that an argument broke out between Bob and the Kowalskis – because Bob had high expectations of his products (i.e. quality was important) while the Kowalskis were more money-focused rather than quality focused.
Things continued as they were for a while – and remember me sharing about Bob’s wife, Jane? Well in 1992, Jane passed away from cancer – and because the way the partnership for Bob Ross, Inc. was setup – according to the Daily Beast article, Jane’s shares in the company were divided equally among the surviving owners – Bob, Annette, and Walt. In retrospect, I wonder if that was an oversight by Bob and Jane – one would think that Jane’s shares would go to Bob only, making Bob the majority shareholder at that point. Instead, the Kowalskis, together, were the majority shareholders since they now owned 2/3 and Bob owned 1/3.
Well, just 2-3 weeks after Jane passed away, Bob was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Once diagnosed, Bob dramatically and rapidly declined – so much so that at one point, Bob was staying at the Kowalskis – I’m not sure if it was because of his poor health or what, but he was essentially living there.
One time, Steve came over to the Kowalskis to visit Bob and while he was there, Steve shared that Annette approached him about having Bob sign a “memorial agreement” – Steve explained that Annette stated it was so that a memorial could be built for Bob, but he thought that it looked like she was trying to get Bob to sign over his “name and likeness” over to them. Steve refused to help Annette – and Steve claimed that Annette was furious.
Steve further claimed that at one point, he overhead his Dad scream, “I’m not giving you my name” and that Bob shared with a friend that he thought that the Kowalskis “were trying to steal his name while on his deathbed.”
Not long after these tense moments and conversations, Bob passed away at the age of 52 on July 4, 1995. Steve shared in the documentary that the Kowalskis did not come to the funeral and that in fact, the Kowalskis were trying to keep Bob’s passing quiet. Surprisingly, according to Steve, only about 30-40 people attended THE Bob Ross’ funeral. According to an article titled “The Surprisingly Mysterious Life of Famed Artist Bob Ross” by Karl Smallwood, Bob actually didn’t disclose his cancer diagnosis – really only his close family and friends knew. (That breaks my heart!)
Several years later, Steve, in an attempt to figure out if he had the rights to use his father’s name, started digging through paperwork. It was in that digging that he found Bob’s estate plan – according to the Daily Beast article, Bob had, prior to his passing, made several changes to his Last Will and Testament specifically adding that “his name, likeness, and the rest of his intellectual property” were to go to his Steve and one of Bob’s half-brothers, Jimmie. Sadly, Steve learned about these changes much too late – Jimmie, the half-brother, was the Executor of Bob’s Estate and had not shared the details of all this with Steve.
With the partnership agreement governing the business, the Kowalskis had total control of Bob Ross, Inc – but without Bob Ross, and without being “awarded” Bob’s name and likeness from Bob, the Kowalskis began suing people much like Oprah gives out cars on Christmas – you get a lawsuit, you get a lawsuit, and you get a lawsuit! What they were attempting to do was grab and gain Bob’s “name and likeness” by, as described in the Daily Beast article, “brute legal force.”
In effort to not make this all about the subsequent legal battles between the Kowalskis, Bob Ross, Inc., Bob’s Estate, Bob’s heirs, … like the Kowalskis even sued an Indiana dermatologist who was a producer for a TV show. They were ruthless! At the very, very, very end of the legal battles, Jimmie, the half-brother, signed a settlement agreement on behalf of Bob’s estate with the Kowalskis – this occurred nearly two years after Bob died.
Full disclosure here! Jimmie was not part of the documentary at all – so we didn’t hear from him, but the documentary stated in a caption that Jimmie was not interviewed for the documentary because of a “fear of being sued by the Kowalskis.”
So, what’s going on today? Like nowadays…
Well, the OG, the original Kowalskis, Annette and Walt, turned over the business to their daughter, Joan, in 2012 – according to the Daily Beast article. The documentary shared that Bob Ross, Inc. today continues to be operated by the Kowalski Family and it profits millions of dollars every year from the licensing. In a “mic drop” moment at the end (of the documentary), it shared that Steve had not received any of those profits.
Shew-wee! What a wild ride – a wild story! Prior to the documentary’s release and my team member mentioning that I needed to check it out for this podcast, I had not heard of the drama that ensued while Bob was living and after he passed regarding his “estate.” I feel like I could write a whole separate episode on what we can learn from Bob, but to keep things brief, I’ll leave you with these couple nuggets:
1. I have to wonder if an attorney was involved in drafting/executing the partnership agreement – The amount of “agreements” I see for businesses of my own clients that are “thrown together” is scary. I hope that wasn’t the case here. Things may have not gotten so messy if Jane’s shares would have gone to Bob – and Bob’s shares would have gone to his Estate. Not to the “surviving owners/partners.”
2. Communication is key! As you navigate running a business, make sure things are communicated and there are things in writing to support what you want – kind of like what I mentioned in the first tip. Also, communication is key between an Executor and beneficiaries – I’m still so stumped by Jimmie settling with the Kowalskis without Steve’s knowledge and input.
Next week’s topic is on estate planning of the rich and the famous – then, we’re going to talk about yet another great musician – Aretha Franklin. We’ve done Michael Jackson, Prince, and now we’ll be talking about Aretha. So yeah, we will talk about her and her estate next Tuesday, Legal Tea Listeners! Talk to you then and stay well!