Bob Ross’ Death: How The Happy Painter’s Final Days Led To An Estate Feud

Bob Ross passed away in Orlando, Florida, at the age of 52 from cancer. His $15 million in revenue had attracted the attention of old business partners who sought to buy him out. The headline of the New York Times obituary for Robert Norman Ross, who passed away at the age of 52 in 1995, read simply: “Bob Ross, 52, Dies; Was A Painter On TV.”  Tucked away near the bottom of the page, it stood out as the sole illustration-free article in the whole section.

Happily, the artist’s legacy has only risen since then. There are now art schools all around the United States that use the Bob Ross method. His long-running public television show The Joy of Painting has a devoted following because viewers can’t get enough of his infectious positivity, easygoing demeanour, and soothing voice. His artistic ability was groundbreaking, but his fame was due more to his exemplary moral fibre than to his artistic accomplishments.

He transformed into a positive force that inspired people to have faith in themselves. However, the passing of Bob Ross was hardly a cause for celebration. Bob Ross passed away on July 4, 1995, after a brief but valiant fight against cancer. But in the months leading up to his death, he was embroiled in a series of legal and personal fights over his will and the ownership of his assets. On his deathbed, he was overheard yelling into the phone.

Bob Ross’ Death
Bob Ross’ Death

Bob Ross’s Death Was Preceded By A Happy Life

A native Floridian, Bob Ross entered this world on October 29, 1942, in Daytona Beach. Bob’s dad was a carpenter, so he grew up feeling more at ease in the garage than in the classroom. He became his father’s apprentice after dropping out of school in the ninth grade, and then joined the Air Force when he turned 18. He served in the military for 20 years, mostly as a drill sergeant in Fairbanks, Alaska.

But he despised barking orders at inexperienced troops, and so he took up painting as a way to relax at the end of the day. He apparently promised not to yell again after he departed the Air Force. Ross, ever the optimist, learned to paint from William Alexander, a practitioner of the “wet-on-wet” method of painting in which successive layers of oil paint are applied quickly over one another without waiting for the preceding layers to dry.

With practise, Ross became so proficient that he could complete a canvas in just 30 minutes. It was discovered that a 30-minute painting was the ideal length for a television programme. Additionally, the world premiere of The Joy of Painting took place on January 11th, 1983. Nonetheless, he never lost his modesty or his need for privacy, and he continued to dedicate a great deal of his time to helping wild animals including deer, squirrels, foxes, and owls.

Bob Ross’ Death
Bob Ross’ Death

Not that he lacked vanity, though. The mild-mannered painter used his newfound money to buy a 1969 Chevrolet Corvette and cruise the streets between tapings. Ross’s life, in general, was a lot like the show he put on when he painted in front of the camera: an uplifting tale of a good-natured man who pursued his passions and was rewarded for his efforts. Bob Ross’s untimely passing was a tragic ending to the life of one of art’s most upbeat creators.

How Did Bob Ross Die?

Bob Ross had a premonition that he would die at an early age, say many who knew him. He’d been a smoker for the better part of his adult life, and by the time he was in his 40s, he’d already had two heart attacks and fought off his first bout with cancer. The second battle, against an extremely aggressive kind of lymphoma, would be fatal.

In 1994, as Ross was about to record the final episode of season 31 of The Joy of Painting, he received the news that he had cancer. Viewers with keen eyes may have noticed that the formerly towering and active painter was somewhat feeble in his final broadcast appearance, but that was only the beginning.

Ross lost not one, but two well-known trademarks soon after he left television. His once-mellow voice had become rough, and his perm had unravelled. His health was deteriorating, so he had to return to his mansion in Orlando, Florida from the Muncie, Indiana studio where he had been filming The Joy of Painting. He lost all motivation to paint in his dying months.

Bob Ross passed away on July 4, 1995 in Orlando, Florida, a city not far from where he was born 52 years prior. His headstone in Woodlawn Memorial Park reads, “television artist.” Oftentimes, artwork created by kids is left at his grave by others who pay their respects.

Ross was a plain and unpretentious man both in life and in death. His close friends and family were the only mourners at his funeral, as was his wish. Everyone who had been invited came to support the “happy painter. Everybody, with the exception of Ross’s two ex-business partners.

The Battle Over Bob Ross’s Estate

When Bob Ross passed away, he was the proprietor of a sizable painting business. Including palettes, brushes, easels, and instructional books, he created a range of painting materials with his likeness on the box. His hourly rate for private sessions was $375. There was more than $15 million in his company by 1995.

The war for control of Bob Ross, Inc. had already begun before his passing. Walt Kowalski, his business partner, left him a terrifying note in the days leading up to the finale of The Joy of Painting.

This message has been described as a “declaration of war, packed with legalese and posturing” by Alston Ramsay, a reporter for The Daily Beast. It was formed with “one goal in mind: full control of everything associated with the Bob Ross brand.”

When Walt and his wife Annette Kowalski met Ross when he was an apprentice, they were instrumental in getting the charismatic painter his own television series in the 1980s. They were so close in the past that Bob Ross named Annette as the executor of his will.

The death of Ross’s second wife Jane from cancer in 1992 sparked conflict among the company’s four owners, including Ross. In the wake of Jane’s passing, Ross and his business partners divided her stake in the business.

Bob Ross’ Death
Bob Ross’ Death

From that point on, the Kowalskis had held the majority of shares in Ross’s company and were now awaiting the painter’s surrender of his share. Steve revealed to The Daily Beast that his dying father spent his final hours in a “steaming-hot” argument with him and his brother.

But in the same way that Ross would alter a painting, say, half a minute before the end of an episode, he also altered his will in a flash. He transferred ownership of his name and likeness from Annette to his son Steve in this document. The artist’s third wife Lynda, whom he wed on his deathbed, inherited his estate.

In The End, The Legacy Of The Joyful Artist

Even though The Joy of Painting repeats continued to appear on television for a few more years after Bob Ross’s death, interest in the show and in Ross himself eventually waned. Soon, he was nothing more than a pleasant flashback for those who grew up in the 1980s.

The advent of the digital age, however, literally brought Ross back from the grave. Bob Ross, Inc. signed an agreement with Twitch, a live-streaming service, in 2015. The network’s executives decided to use a streaming marathon of The Joy of Painting to introduce their new show.

The business agreed, and the “happy painter” was once again a topic of headlines. A new audience found Ross, some of whom were artists or simply looking for a way to unwind at the end of a hard day. Ross’s popularity has increased throughout the years. He has remained popular for so long because his message is universal and will never go out of style.

Learning to believe in yourself, trust others, and appreciate the beauty of the natural world are the real lessons of The Joy of Painting, not painting itself. Thus, Bob Ross’s legacy continues even after his untimely passing.

Bob Ross’ Death
Bob Ross’ Death

Final Lines

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