Dawn Wells, who parlayed her girl-next-door charm and wholesome beauty into enduring TV fame as the sweet-natured desert island castaway Mary Ann on the classic 1960s sitcom Gilligan’s Island, has died from complications of COVID-19, her publicist said.
Wells, who won the title of Miss Nevada in 1959 and competed in the Miss America contest, was 82 when she died, publicist Harlan Boll said in a statement.
Born in the gambling city of Reno, Wells played Kansas farm girl Mary Ann Summers, one of seven castaways stranded after their boat, the S.S. Minnow, became battered in a storm during what was supposed to be a three-hour tour from Hawaii. Wells beat out actresses including Raquel Welch for her role.
Gilligan’s Island ran for three seasons (1964-1967) with a cast that also included Bob Denver as the zany Gilligan, Alan Hale Jr. as “the skipper,” Jim Backus as millionaire Thurston Howell III, Natalie Schafer as his posh wife, Russell Johnson as “the professor” and Tina Louise as movie star Ginger.
The death of Wells leaves Louise, 86, the sole survivor of these cast members.
‘Ginger or Mary Ann?’
The 98 episodes invariably involved the castaways efforts to get off the island, even as a parade of guest stars dropped in and had no trouble getting out. The show drew the wrath of critics but its innocent fun caught on with viewers at a time of tumult in America after the assassination of a president and during the rise of the civil rights movement and the escalation of the Vietnam War.
Wells, playing a cheerful brunette Midwestern farm girl, appeared in the series wearing short shorts, midriff tops and pigtails. Louise, playing a buxom red-headed sensation akin to Marilyn Monroe, wore slinky, form-fitting dresses. The two inspired what became an enduring pop culture question for men: “Ginger or Mary Ann?”
Wells said that question was the most common topic mentioned to her by fans. “Mostly they’ll pick a favourite, Ginger or Mary Ann. For some reason, they feel they have to make a choice,” Wells told Forbes magazine in 2016.
Misconception that Gilligan’s Island made her rich
Wells had effusive praise for Denver and her other cast mates but was not especially close to Louise, who distanced herself from the Ginger character and declined to appear in various Gilligan’s Island reboots with her former co-stars.
“We had nothing against each other,” Wells told the Los Angeles Times in 2014. “We didn’t have much in common.”
Gilligan’s Island was cancelled by network executives despite respectable ratings, then became ubiquitous in syndicated reruns.
“A misconception is that we must be wealthy, rolling in the dough, because we got residuals,” Wells told Forbes. “We didn’t really get a dime.”
Wells said she was paid $750 US a week. “Sherwood Schwartz, our producer, reportedly made $90 million on the reruns alone,” she added.
Like some of her co-stars, she suffered from typecasting in Hollywood in the years after the series ended, appearing in TV guest spots and stage work before taking roles in B-movies.
In light of the show’s steady popularity in the 1970s, three made-for-TV movies were produced with far-fetched plots involving Soviet satellites and visiting basketball players: Rescue from Gilligan’s Island (1978), The Castaways on Gilligan’s Island (1979) and The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island (1981).
From actor to author
Wells also lent her voice to the animated Gilligan’s Planet (1982) in which the castaways become stranded on a far-away planet.
Wells also capitalized on her fame by writing, Mary Ann’s Gilligan’s Island Cookbook, and later, for the 50th anniversary of the series in 2014, the book, What Would Mary Ann Do? A Guide to Life.
Wells was born on Oct. 18, 1938. She studied theatre at the University of Washington, heading to Hollywood after her beauty pageant success.
She embraced her pop culture status but said there was more to her than just being Mary Ann.
“I’m deeper, smarter, more ambitious, funnier,” she told Forbes. “I think if you meet me for 15 minutes, there is nothing you won’t know: what you see is what you get.”