How did Bob Ross die? Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the afro-sporting artist taught ordinary people to paint on his PBS show The Joy of Painting. But Ross passed away in 1995, leaving a younger generation to rely on decades-old footage for a taste of his serene nature scenes and soothing demeanor. The resurgence of his show on Netflix (hosted on the platform from 2016 to 2020) proved to be wise: Ross’ spirit currently lives on in the form of licensed painting supplies, Pez dispensers, and even a Chia pet.
Find out the cause of Bob Ross’ death, as well some other fascinating facts about the iconic TV host and instructor.
1. Bob Ross Had An Epileptic Pet Squirrel
One thing Ross loved more than oil landscapes and “happy little trees” was animals. In between painting tutorials, Ross occasionally gave his favorite critters airtime on his show. He nuzzled his face against fawns, introduced viewers to a number of owls, and cuddled with baby raccoons. (Legend has it he even once kept a baby alligator in his bathtub as a child.)
But his favorite creature was Peapod, his “pocket squirrel.” In some early episodes of The Joy of Painting, Ross stashed his furry friend in his front shirt pocket while he painted. It was such a delightful and unexpected sight that viewers began to inquire about Peapod.
“He’s grown up and we’ve turned him loose and he’s got his own family now,” Ross said later in the series. “A little condo in Miami, BMW, car payments every month—same thing we all have, except I don’t have a BMW.”
Ross’ quips aside, his love for Peapod was genuine. “We’d be walking along, and if there was a squirrel nearby, he would just sort of drop to his knees,” said Joan Kowalski, president of Bob Ross Inc. “And he had a way where they wouldn’t scurry off. It was sort of his favorite, favorite thing.”
2. Bob Ross Actually Hated His Curly Permed Hair
It may have had nothing to do with his artistic skill, but Bob Ross’s curly hair was an undeniable signature of his brand. For The Joy of Painting‘s entire run, viewers never saw the host in anything other than an afro.
Now brace yourself for a disappointing truth: the hairdo was a sham. Ross’s curls were the result of a perm. He was actually quite handsome with his straight, natural hair, but his frugal nature persuaded him to try a new look. His business partner Annette Kowalski confirms that his ‘fro was one of his biggest regrets.
“He got this bright idea that he could save money on haircuts,” Kowalski told NPR. “So he let his hair grow, he got a perm, and decided he would never need a haircut again… He could never, ever, ever change his hair, and he was so mad about that.”
Check out Ross in his early days from this Reddit post—he’s unrecognizable!
3. Bob Ross, Not Mr. Rogers, Served In The Military
Ross was not the only soft-spoken host on public television in the 80s, which may explain why his life story was misattributed to his peers. For years, there’s been an urban legend that Fred Rogers, host of the old children’s TV show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, was a Vietnam War sniper.
In fact, it was Ross who served in the military. At 18, he enlisted in the United States Air Force. In 1963, he transferred from Florida to Alaska and began taking painting lessons at a U.S.O. club.
“[Alaska] has some of the most beautiful mountain scenery there that I’d ever seen,” said Ross. “I used to come home, take off my little soldier hat, put on my painter’s hat.”
Ross reached the rank of Master Sergeant when he retired in 1981. By then he was burned out and earning more though his painting side hustle than he did from his military paycheck.
4. Bob Ross Didn’t Make Any Money Off His PBS Show “The Joy Of Painting”
When Ross began his new chapter as a TV host, he reached a massive audience that was fascinated by his technique and personality. But what many people don’t know is that The Joy of Painting did not pay his bills.
“People see you on television and they think you make the same amount of money that Clint Eastwood does,” Ross told the Orlando Sentinel in 1990. “But this is PBS. All these shows are done for free.”
Instead, he made money from products featured on the show. Ross founded his own companny that put out how-to books, painting supplies, and video tutorials. Even after his death, Bob Ross Inc. continues to keep fans happy with a wide range of merchandise, from a namesake version of Monopoly to a children’s book featuring Peapod.
5. Bob Ross Was Missing A Part Of His Finger
Perhaps viewers were too mesmerized by Ross’ landscapes to notice that the painter was actually missing a part of his left index finger. In Happy Clouds, Happy Trees: The Bob Ross Phenomenon, authors Kristin G. Congdon, Doug Blandy, and Danny Coeyman reveal that he lost a chunk of his digit while working as a carpenter for his father.
Ross deftly disguised the finger behind his paint palette. However, he couldn’t hide the injury forever. He occasionally exposed his left hand in clips where he’s not focused on art. Take the time when he fed Peapod from a bottle for his viewers:
6. Bob Ross Really Did Love “Happy Little Trees”
Ross filmed 381 episodes of The Joy of Painting, which means we saw a lot of lakes and mountains brushed onto canvases over the years. But statistics website Five Thirty-Eight went a step further and analyzed all of Ross’s compositions from the series. It turns out that “happy little trees” were the dominant theme.
Ninety-one percent of his work included at least one tree; 85 percent had at least two. Maybe he was making up for what he missed out on in his earliest painting classes. According to Biography, “He didn’t care for the abstract teaching style that focused on ‘color theory and composition’ but ‘wouldn’t tell you how to paint a tree.'”
7. Bob Ross Didn’t Always Have A Calming And Soothing Demeanor
Ross wasn’t always the chill person we saw on screen. He admits that he was a different person during his military days.
“I was the guy who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy who screams at you for being late to work,” Ross said to the Orlando Sentinel. “The job requires you to be a mean, tough person. And I was fed up with it. I promised myself that if I ever got away from it, it wasn’t going to be that way any more.”
He made good on that promise. Ross’ teaching style was gentle and encouraging. He often insisted that there was no such thing as mistake, only “happy accidents.”
“I don’t intimidate anyone,” he said. “Instead, I try to get people to believe in themselves. I tell people, ‘You can do this.'”
8. Bob Ross Could Film An Entire Season Of ‘The Joy of Painting’ In Just Two Days
Ross was a resident of Florida but filmed his shows from a PBS station in Muncie, Indiana. Could his military training have accounted for his efficiency? Every three months, he drove to the Midwest to film an entire season of The Joy of Painting. He and his crew could finish a 13-episode order in two-and-a-half days. Ross once broke a record by churning out eight shows in a single day.
9. Bob Ross Hated Painting People, And Rarely Ever Did
Ross proved his mastery of painting nature scenes at warp speed. But throughout his career, he shied away from human subjects.
“I can think of two times he painted people,” Annette Kowalski told Five Thirty-Eight. “There was a man by a campfire, and two people walking through the woods.”
Even manmade structures were kept to a minimum. Bridges are seen in only two percent of his work, while barns show up four percent of the time.
“I will tell you Bob’s biggest secret. If you notice, his cabins never had chimneys on them,” Kowalski continued. “That’s because chimneys represented people, and he didn’t want any sign of a person in his paintings. Check the cabins. They have no chimneys.”
10. Bob Ross Died Of Cancer
Ross died at the age of 52 in 1995, one year after The Joy of Painting ended. The cause was lymphoma, or lymphatic cancer. Walter J. Kowalski, the chief executive officer of Bob Ross Inc., announced his passing. Ross, who admitted to being a private person, never made news of his condition public. It was a sudden and sad loss, but we are happy that he remains a beloved figure in the pop culture pantheon.