Happy Little Accidents: Writing Bob Ross' Story
I was an outsider when I landed in Los Angeles. I’d studied film in college, but the last time I’d done anything with that training was before I dropped out. Still, the concept of making a film professionally reverberated, so I sought out Sarah, a pal from those college filmmaking days, who was at that point working as a development executive at a boutique production company in Los Angeles. Her boss, an A-list actor, was making her life somewhat difficult so she was eager to work on something quirky, beyond his reach. She was a friend, and extended an olive branch. I reached out to meet her.
“I’ve got this treatment about Bob Ross,” I told Sarah over the phone.
“The TV painter guy, with the Afro and the happy little trees?”
“The very one.”
She liked it right away. I liked that she liked it and told me that she liked it. I was a fresh writer, or, to put it more honestly, woefully inexperienced. But I knew the value of commitment and commendation.
Sarah, energized by her own connection to Ross’ somewhat surreal realm, offered something intangible to me at the time, a benevolent way of addressing problems inherent to my slapdash style of writing. She’d tell me, “it’s a little rough, but that’s to be expected,” instead of, “this thing is laden with grammatical and spelling errors that make it impossible to read." I was grateful for her reserve.
Later I added in some sections of fantasy, where Ross transmits himself outside of his own militarily regimented world. Sarah liked that, too, encouraging me to pin the film's three acts on specific fantasies. It worked. The more I found out about Ross, the more episodes of his show I watched, it became obvious, he was a dreamer as much as he was anything else. The fantasies would sync well with that. Now, his character was established through artistic merit. I was high on that for weeks.
I found out other things about Ross along the way. Most tellingly, his voluminous hair was not natural. He had a perm. Ross adopted the hairstyle after retiring from the Air Force in his late 30s. He’d bought an RV and traveled to malls across the country, setting up painting classes in each one, teaching local blue-hairs the wet-on-wet style, punctuated with his happy little trees. By the time he landed on TV, the perm was too notable a characteristic to let go. When he branched out into selling paints and brushes and palettes, they all were emblazoned with his frizzy caricature.
Ross grew up near what was becoming the "space belt" in Florida. Not surprisingly, visions of aerospace danced in his head. So he did what a lot of kids did in 1961—he joined the Air Force. Almost immediately, they robbed him of his pilot dreams, announcing that he didn’t meet the height requirements and that he had flat feet. The Air Force assigned him a desk job, and he filed medical records for 20 years, riding pine instead of riding jets. Still, he rose to the rank of Master Sergeant along the way.
Ross lived in Alaska and Southern California. He had a kid. He learned to paint. He got divorced. He got remarried. Had another kid. He bought that RV and traveled across the country, teaching people to paint. It wasn’t necessarily the stuff of vaunted Hollywood biopics like Patton or Lawrence of Arabia, but Ross’s life and its candid shifting of gears impacted me. There was a sense of everyman to him, and of quiet victory. I too had been married and divorced. I’d worked as a chef in New Orleans only to give it up to do something more creative and less drunken.
Once Ross made it to PBS, he'd developed into something different, allowing a character to step out into the spotlight. “I’m not so good one-on-one, “ he said during one episode of "The Joy of Painting," “but put me in front of 5,000 people and I’m comfortable.”
Another time, Ross added a note of criminality to his method: “We’re like drug dealers. Come into town and get everybody absolutely addicted to painting. And it doesn’t take much to get you addicted.”
He had this homespun geniality that ricocheted off his brushes into his landscapes. It was more van art than Van Gogh, but still, he imbued those paintings with a shared sense of achievement. And that was his real artistry. It’s what resonated strongest with me. Someone beaten by bureaucracy had risen to the challenge, stepped into a new world of his own creation.
Who wouldn’t want to see a movie about a guy like that? At the time, movies about offbeat comedian Andy Kauffman, autobiographical cartoonist Harvey Pekar and Lost in Translation's boozy, semi-retired actor working on a commercial in Japan were bringing big audiences. Ross’s story held that same kind of relevance.
I’d email Sarah pages of progress and she would write the most constructively kind criticism I’ve come across before or since. “Maybe he’s too naïve here,” she offered in one email. “The interstitial humor is tops,” in another. It was an experience I’d never have again in my brief term writing for Hollywood.
Perhaps I was guilty of shamelessly attaching my dim light to Ross’s more powerful radiance, but I fell in love with the version of his story that I wrote.
During the process, there was some email back and forth with Bob Ross, Inc., the company that shilled Ross’s paints while he was alive and continued along after he died from Lymphoma in 1995. They wanted more changes to the script. Eventually, someone made the decision to change Ross’s name. I hated the idea. Sarah didn’t like it much either. It was an exhausting decision. Bob Ross became Doug Maas and I just couldn’t bring myself to care about whether Doug Maas died in a fantasy segment or even made it to the silver screen. Letting go of the real Ross meant the whole process, the last two years of writing, were swept up in a dust pan and emptied into the swirling Santa Ana winds that wallop Southern California.
We moved on. I’d written another script, met another producer and found some more uneven ground to plant myself upon. Sarah took a job with the photo department of the Academy Awards. And that’s when I realized neither one of us were built for the devious business model Hollywood operates.
After that, I tried to get the Ross film made. We cast some people who would have been excellent at the time but wouldn’t matter much now, over a decade later. We made decisions and executed them wholly based on Hollywoodland’s echo chamber. When I read back through the drafts of the script today, the only thing that really resonates is that it happened, all 72 drafts of it. Everything else is a conduit into a place I can no longer access.
And I’m happy about that. It took too many years to wash away the jittery anger and failure I associated with Ross, and reconnect with the initial joy I had researching his life and writing about him. But now the calm unpolished style of Ross’s show again reverberates with his kindness. The delicate, sometimes-broad strokes of his humor again pop up in those happy little trees of his. So now, years later, Ross is simply Ross to me, and not an emblem of my real and imagined successes and failures. He’s just a guy on the screen making good use of his medium and talking like you’re right there with him while he paints. His voice like aural valium, calming the realm with a purple-tinged circular landscape.