Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone: ‘Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed’

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Actors and producers (and spouses) Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone on the enduring affection for Bob Ross. Photo courtesy of Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes actors and producers and real-life husband and wife Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone. The couple have collaborated on many projects, but their newest is a Netflix documentary on the legendary artist and public television host Bob Ross called “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed.” The film was directed by Joshua Rofé. McCarthy and Falcone give their insight into why Ross has had long lasting and enduring appeal among a diverse audience. They discuss the new lessons about filmmaking they learned from the documentary process. And, of course, they talk about the fascination with Ross’ iconic head of hair.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. My guests are very talented writers, actors, producers, a director in one case. They are the producers of the terrific and fascinating new documentary "Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal and Greed." Never a more succinct and apt title for a documentary than this. My guests are Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone. The director of the film is Josh Rofé, who did the terrific film "Lorenna" a few years back. What got you involved in this?

Melissa McCarthy: First of all, I think we can say that we have the same fascination with Bob Ross that strangely spans the globe, and I've had it since I was a child. I remember watching him on PBS, and just not understanding the speed, and, even as a kid, I was like, he's so calm. Even if I'm not going to paint with him, there's something reassuring about him. And it kind of kept translating through the ages. 

We have two girls, and when they were little, we would watch it. And we had such a true fascination with him. Then we realized, we don't know anything about him outside of the PBS show. And we just thought we wish we knew more.

Ben Falcone: Yeah, I wanted to write a movie about Bob Ross, sort of a biopic type of thing. And I realized that that would be impossible because if you just do a simple Google search, there's very little you're gonna find out except that he was stationed in Alaska, and he was in the military for a while, and so we just became fascinated with the idea of well, who was Bob Ross? Because he comforts so many of us.

McCarthy: In so many different ways. Like there's the stoned college kids that are like, I don't know, I can watch it all the time. There's the background noise. There's the people that really want a creative outlet. It's rare to find someone who connects to so many people on so many different levels. That's a weird, amazing thing to be able to do.

KCRW: One of the things I think connects you guys as creators to this is that thin line between pleasure and heartbreak. That was so much what his life was about.

Falcone: Yeah, as Josh and Steven Berger, the super talented filmmakers who dug in, along with Divya D'Souza, they kept finding more and more that's completely fascinating. There were moments that were uplifting and also some really sad stuff that was going on, so we were fascinated to find out as they kept digging.

McCarthy: As someone who started in the military and then was really this artist, I think there's so many people out there that do a job, give great service do different things, but in his heart of hearts, Bob wanted to paint, and clearly that's what he was built to do. His son Steven also is a beautiful painter. The thought of somebody at that time period being like, I think I'm gonna paint. Yeah, I think it's pretty brave. It's pretty remarkable and super scary to do. And the fact that he just went with that. We're two people from the Midwest that were like, maybe we could make movies. I'm pretty sure every nun that ever taught me was like, girl, you're crazy. I'm always obsessed with someone who kind of is like, well, what if it works?

KCRW: As an actor, Melissa, you've often played these characters who create worlds around them. And Ben, you create some nice pieces that you guys have done together. And at one point early in the movie, he says I can create the kind of world that I want. It becomes this act of will. That seems to be something that, as creatives, you guys have in common. 

Falcone: Well, I think everybody who's really creative is, in some way, at some time, a bit of a control freak, because what you're trying to do, if you make a painting or you write a script, or you act in a scene is you want it to be exactly the way you're envisioning it at that moment. But I think there's something so beautiful about how Bob might have had these discordant moments in his life, and his refuge was his art. 

McCarthy: He really doubled down and infused it. It's in the weave of who he was. It's with happy accidents. He said it again and again: in a world where you're supposed to be like, do it right, do the right thing. But he's like, when something goes wrong, it's a great chance to pivot. If you've messed up your painting, it's a happy accident and go with it. There was something incredibly kind and hopeful about how he saw the world.

KCRW: There's a period of public TV, and be it Bob Ross, or Fred Rogers, or Julia Child, these people who demystified the world and took the stress away and became in effect, these almost zen touchstones for us. And what's so fascinating about this is the gentle confidence these people have, but in each of them, you can see the will it took to bring this thoughtfulness and gentleness into being.

Falcone: You really do. I remember watching Mr. Rogers, and when the puppets would come on, I'd be like, no, tie your shoes again! It's somebody who takes you effortlessly into their world, their mind. And Bob is certainly part of that triumvirate that you just brought up of these people that were able to do that. And just by being themselves.

McCarthy: I think that's the big thing. I think it wasn't the: what's your brand? What are you going to do? All of those things that make my eyelids curl back. But at that point, it was kept so intimate that it was just simply like, what do you do? And it was a grouping of people, Julia Child included.

I remember watching, I'm pretty sure it was on PBS, the first time I saw "The Cajun Cook, and I was like, this guy's nuts. I think I love him. Just because they were so eccentric, in their love of something they were so myopic about. I love this one thing, and this is what my life is about. I'm not going to glamorize it. I'm not going to glitz it up. I'm just simply going to do what I do. There was no expectation to be sparkly or more witty. It's so lovely to watch somebody just be who they truly are. 

Falcone: I think there's a modern day parallel to Bob Ross, Julia Child and Fred Rogers. I think it's Guy Fieri. He might have created his brand and dyed his hair on purpose, but it just seems like he's that guy that you want to have a sandwich and a beer with and he's unapologetic about it. There’s something about Bob. He got his hair done, first it was for money, I believe.

McCarthy: His son talks about it. In the 50s, he had an unbelievable bouffant. He was always into his hair, which I love. But I do have to say, on a personal level, when I found out that his hair was permed, I felt like I was the Grinch, but I do feel like my heart opened like 10 times bigger. 

Bob Ross in Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed documentary. Photo courtesy of Netflix © 2021

KCRW: There's a point where he talks about his own cancer, just holding it together, you can hear tiny cracks in the voice, as he talks about it, but he doesn't give into it. To me, that's the most remarkable part of the film. You can see the toughness that it took, but he doesn't throw a tantrum, and there's no break and it ends up, in effect, being the same show. He did many shows before and many shows after.

McCarthy: Yeah, he didn't break stride, and he did it his way. I've talked to a lot of people about him. There's something so inspiring about the fact that he just did it his way without anyone in his wake. It wasn't in spite of someone else. He just simply gently and quietly did things his own way. And I think there's such incredible strength. It's so impressive and it kind of breaks my heart and makes me want to do better the more I know about him. 

Falcone: Yeah, and, not to bring the room down, but we're all gonna die. He died too young, and he died in a tough way. He had a tough, stubborn streak about him that left him graceful all the way to the end, which I think is something to aspire to.

McCarthy: I think in the last year and a half, how we've all seen people behave. I think there's a beautiful lesson to just being graceful truly in your heart. It's that lead with kindness and gracefully doing what you want, and leaving no casualties is a beautiful way to live.

KCRW: This feels like the kind of film that we want to see about somebody who was a public figure who cut a swath from malls to the biggest talk shows of the day, and was the same person with all and didn't try to be smarter than the room. And his enthusiasm is what, in effect, created a cult and a community.

Falcone: Yeah, I agree. I mean, I try to be the same person every day. There's a little clip in the movie where he's on Regis' show. Regis was so quippy on his show, and threw him a little thing, and I'm like: what are you going to do? And you could tell Bob--he's not an improviser--but he slowly responds and he goes, well, now you're gonna make me give away my secrets. And it was just like a little window into: this is not scripted because his shows were meticulously scripted. And as much as he wasn't somebody who was about branding or pretending to be someone he wasn't, he was also someone who held true to his tenets and his core belief.

McCarthy: Because he knew he had to do that painting in a limited time. It was what made it accessible to his audience. When people are like, Oh, well, some people just do things really well, I'm like, No, I was not surprised. As with any great artist, I don't care what your medium is, when the prep is so extreme, he would do those paintings three, four or five times.

Falcone: A lot of times he was painting the painting from a painting that he'd already painted. 

McCarthy: So he would be prepared and ready for the show. And I'm like, yes, that's not a cheat at all. It's like an actor being prepared, or a musician showing up, and no great musician shows up and is like, Oh, I haven't even played this yet. I don't know how it goes. I have a great respect for an incredible amount of prep, so when you actually do whatever art it is you do, you can kind of let it go and seem effortless. And you really can only do that with a lot of homework. I'm sure there's a few exceptions, but I would have to say it's rare.

KCRW: In each one of those episodes of that show, being an unsophisticated hick in Detroit, and not knowing anything about this, the last two minutes of each episode was like, is he gonna get this done? And it was like watching somebody disarm a bomb. And to see that be a part of the film, too, is pretty wonderful to me.

McCarthy: I loved listening to the director. She had the same feeling. She goes, I know, we were prepped. I know we're doing this. She goes, every single show, I thought there's no possible way. And I just loved it because I was like, that's what you always thought. I remember watching my dad and just being like, there's no way; this guy's amazing.

Falcone: He became kind of a gambler towards the end of the show, right? He's almost done with the paintings and then like, well, we should probably add a tree here, or a bush and you're like, no, Bob!

McCarthy: When the painting was perfect, he goes, I'm going to put a huge, dark brown streak down the center of it. It was always that one where I'm like, boy, that's your encore.

Falcone: And you know, I think Josh and Steven were able to imbue the movie with a little bit of that feeling because, as the movie progresses, towards the end, you start to see some things that are pretty surprising and interesting for sure.

McCarthy: There's a magical thing about really great documentary filmmakers. I remember even asking them: what do we think we'll get? And they're like, you can't do that. You can't go for the story, you simply have to go in search of it, and the story will tell itself.

Falcone: Yeah, and in a lot of ways the movie tells you what it wants to be, and that's very different, obviously, for Melissa and I, because we have had the good fortune to be able to write some of our own material or stuff that we've been in that we haven't written, but I mean, the cake is baked, and then you execute.

McCarthy: You know the recipe. This movie could be about anything. It could be spaghetti, or this could be sugar cookies, and they go in completely open to what is the story and what will we find out, and then we just let it take us. You know, we've been telling stories for a long time ourselves, and to watch it be done in such a completely different way, I thought, boy, it's something to learn from.

KCRW: There is something unsettling about Bob's craft and talent. I mean, that he could do it that fast and that quietly, and, what you were talking about earlier, Ben, that he did this thing with Regis, but also, by the end of the Joan Rivers segment, she's become an admiring fan like everybody else. I mean, just to see people fall under his spell continually is a remarkable thing to watch.

McCarthy: Yeah, I think so, too. And I think the lovely thing about it was that the takeaway is not that like, [sarcastically] oh, boy, what a charmer. We were all charmed because he meant it. Nothing is more charming than integrity. And someone who really thinks a certain way and there was no flip side to it.

Falcone: I would disagree. politely. You know how he came about the idea to do the wet on wet technique. His relationship with Steven. I mean, there's definitely stuff. 

McCarthy: Oh, I'm not saying perfect. I'm just saying he wasn't conjuring an image, and then you hear, guys, by the way, he's in a bar fight. Nobody's perfect.

Falcone: Yeah. But I think I think they did such a deft job of showing he really did seem to have an unerring path, and he was just going to go on this path. So many really good artists do and I think people tend to undermine his art a little bit more than they should. It is pretty great. And the fact that he could do it in 30 minutes, what's the difference? You know, if you see a painting that you think is amazing, does it matter if someone was able to paint it in 30 minutes or 30 days? I think the art should hit you how it's going to hit you, and you shouldn't care how it came about.

McCarthy: Also this struggle when someone's like, someone needs to struggle and be miserable for their art. I always think it's all shades; it's all colors. It's all things. Someone being miserable while making art and it taking six years is not more valid than someone who makes something and is like, I think this will make someone happy. If that's wrong, we have failed. 

Falcone: I think that is a fallacy in our culture, though, a little bit. If a film director treats people like garbage and yells at everybody, and the movie's really dark and everything is awful, it's valid. It's like, oh, that's a good movie, because they went through it. And I just think art should hit you how it hits you. And how they made it isn't your concern at all. 

McCarthy: I think there's room for both. But also, I really never want to work with someone who wants to just be miserable and scream at people. 



Rebecca Mooney