The Real Bob Ross: Meet The Meticulous Artist Behind Those Happy Trees Don't be fooled by his mild PBS persona; the beloved painter was actually an exacting artist and businessman with — brace yourself — naturally straight hair.

The Real Bob Ross: Meet The Meticulous Artist Behind Those Happy Trees

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The hypnotic voice, the poofy hair, the beard - Bob Ross passed away more than 20 years ago. But apparently, he's as timeless as the happy trees he painted on his PBS show, "The Joy Of Painting." Time to get out those oil paints. Netflix is streaming episodes, which got our producer, Danny Hajek, thinking, what's Bob's story?

DANNY HAJEK, BYLINE: For most of us, he's just a man and his canvas, wearing a partly unbuttoned chambray shirt and a halo of tight curls. Here he is with his almighty brush, painting mist around a mountain.


BOB ROSS: I lived in Alaska for many, many years. And you see some of the most beautiful scenery there. God was having a good day when he made Alaska - beautiful.

HAJEK: These are landscapes out of his imagination.


ROSS: In your world, you can do anything that you want. If you want this shrubbery and bushes and trees to come all the way across, then do it. Do it.

HAJEK: The way he talked, it felt so personal, and yet Bob Ross is a mystery. If you want to know about him, you'll have to seek out his business partner, Annette Kowalski. She has all the stories, and she can even tell you about that hair.


HAJEK: The story goes that, when he moved down from Alaska, he didn't have much money.

KOWALSKI: He got this bright idea that he could save money on haircuts, so he let his hair grow. He got a perm and decided he would never need a haircut again.

HAJEK: So you're saying Bob Ross' natural hair was straight?

KOWALSKI: Oh, my goodness, yes. You haven't seen the pictures?

HAJEK: The perm became the company's logo. She says Bob hated it.

KOWALSKI: (Laughter). He did. He got tired of that curly hair.

HAJEK: Annette welcomed NPR into her home in Herndon, Va., surrounded by framed floral paintings on the wall, family portraits and an instructional book by Bob Ross on the coffee table. She was the one who discovered Bob Ross. It was 35 years ago, in the wake of a tragedy.

KOWALSKI: My oldest son was killed in a traffic accident. It was very difficult. I was so devastated. All I could do was lay on the couch and watch television.

HAJEK: She watched a painter named Bill Alexander. He was big on PBS back then. And Annett's husband, Walter, was so desperate to get her out of the house he signed her up for a Bill Alexander painting class 900 miles away, in Clearwater, Fla. But Bill Alexander wasn't teaching. He passed his paintbrush off to some protege that no one had heard of.

KOWALSKI: I was very disappointed. I so wanted to paint with Bill Alexander. But my husband said, get up, get in the car. We're going.

HAJEK: Up front at the easel was some guy with a perm who went by Bob, but his painting was pretty good. And then he started talking, and he was comforting, like his forest landscape.

KOWALSKI: I 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.

HAJEK: The Kowalskis took him to dinner at a fast food joint and brokered a deal right there. Annette became Bob Ross' manager. They packed up the paints, hopped in his motorhome and hit the road. Annette bought ads in local papers, and Bob held seminars in shopping malls.

KOWALSKI: Maybe only one or two people would show up for a class.

HAJEK: They needed to generate some buzz. Annette though, why not set up a Bob Ross Hotline?

KOWALSKI: 1-800-Bob-Ross.

HAJEK: They filmed a commercial, then launched a TV show. And that's when Bob hit the big time.


ROSS: Hi. I'm Bob Ross. And for the next 13 weeks, I'll be your host as we experience the joy of painting.

HAJEK: This grainy video is the first episode. His hair's not as big, but he's already using those familiar little Bob-isms that made him famous.


ROSS: Let's have a happy little tree right in here. There he goes.

HAJEK: They aired over 400 episodes of "The Joy Of Painting," but most viewers weren't tuning in to paint. We were watching Bob Ross to just watch Bob Ross - crisscrossing the canvas to paint the sky, drawing out his palette knife to blend the Prussian blue with Alizarin crimson, painting a distant mountain and then whipping his brush against the easel to clean off the bristles.


ROSS: Shake off the excess.

HAJEK: Always with that classic catchphrase.


ROSS: (Laughter). And just beat the devil out of it.

HAJEK: Thirty minutes later, he had his masterpiece.


ROSS: We have a pretty nice-looking little sky. And there wasn't anything to it. Now then, let's get crazy.

KOWALSKI: He's making you think it's so easy. Well, let me tell you something, these are not as spontaneous as they look.

HAJEK: In fact, Bob made three of the same paintings for every episode - one for a reference that sat off camera, one during taping - that's what we see - and a more detailed one for his how-to books. The guy was meticulous.

KOWALSKI: Bob used to lay in bed at night, he told me. He rehearsed every word. He knew exactly what he was going to say on every one of those programs.


ROSS: If you've painted with me before, you know without question that we don't make mistakes here. We just have happy accidents.

HAJEK: He was just so relaxed all the time. I asked Annette, what was the real Bob Ross like?

KOWALSKI: A tyrant. You don't believe that? Do you really think this company would be as successful as it is if he didn't insist that everything be done a certain way? He insisted.

HAJEK: They had a business to look after. He was as much a businessman as he was a painter.

KOWALSKI: I don't want to leave the impression that he was rude or nasty. He just wanted things done his way. He was wonderful. He was really wonderful. I want Bob back.

HAJEK: After he was diagnosed with lymphoma, the two spent his last days sitting outside the hospital on a park bench by a lake.

KOWALSKI: And Bob was not always full of compliments, but he said to me, Annette, you are the wind beneath my wings. And that is what I'm left with, and it means so much to me.

HAJEK: Bob Ross died on July 4, 1995. He was 52. The company was left in the hands of Annette and Walter Kowalski. And Bob Ross Inc. is still an art-supply giant - paint and brush manufacturers, certified Bob Ross instructors and now a deal with Netflix.

KOWALSKI: I think I'm doing this just the way Bob would've wanted it done. I'm very proud of the fact. And I think Bob would be happy if he could see it now.


ROSS: Tell you what, the old clock on the wall says it's about time to go for the day. I think, with that, we'll call this painting finished. And from all of us here, I'd like to wish you happy painting and God bless, my friend.

HAJEK: Danny Hajek, NPR News

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