Dawn Wells, the actress who played Mary Ann on the hit 1960s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island,” exuded all-American health, Midwestern practicality, and a youthful naive charm, died Wednesday in a Los Angeles nursing home. She was 82 years old.
Her publicist Harlan Boll said the cause was linked to Covid-19.
“Gilligan’s Island” made its debut on CBS in 1964 and followed an unlikely septet of day trippers (on a “three-hour tour,” as the theme song explained) who were stranded on a deserted island.
There was Mary Ann Summers (Mrs. Wells), a Kansas farm girl, wrecked alongside a movie star (who spent most of the time in evening gowns), a science professor, a pompous, elderly, wealthy couple, and two crazy crewmen who had the trip in a local Won radio competition.
The character had a relatively sparse backstory – it was said that she worked at home at the hardware store and had a boyfriend – but Mary Ann’s personality alone made it memorable. Gingham blouses, short shorts, double ponytails, and sassy hair bows were all parts of her signature look.
The first version of the show’s theme song mentioned five of the characters, “and the rest,” but the lyrics were soon changed to include the Professor (Russell Johnson) and Mary Ann. The others in the cast were Bob Denver (Gilligan), Alan Hale Jr. (the skipper), Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer (as the couple Thurston Howell III and Lovey Howell) and Tina Louise (as the actress, Ginger). Ms. Louise is the last surviving member of the original cast.
That the premise of “Gilligan’s Island” was rather implausible and its humor simple made no difference to the millions of fans or producers of the show who would find in the years to come that they had produced a cultural phenomenon.
Although “Gilligan’s Island” only lasted three seasons and was canceled in 1967, it hardly slipped off the horizon. Endless repetitions followed, and the performers had a number of encores. For one, Ms. Wells repeated her role as Mary Ann in three television films: “Rescue From Gilligan’s Island” (1978), “The Castaways on Gilligan’s Island” (1979) and “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island” (1981)).
In 1982 she starred for both her character and Ms. Louise’s film star in Gilligan’s Planet, an animated spin-off series. And she played Mary Ann on episodes from at least four other (unrelated) shows: “Alf” (1986), “Baywatch” (1989), “Herman’s Head” (1991) and “Meego” (1997). “Gilligan’s” episodes had a certain stock value.
Even her writing career was directly related to the series. Mary Ann’s Gilligan’s Island Cookbook, which also included Skippers Coconut Pie, was published in 1993. “What Would Mary Ann Do?” A Guide to Life, ”a memoir she wrote with Steve Stinson, was published in 2014.
Mary Ann’s advice in the book included this thought: “Failure creates character. What matters is what you do after you fail. “The San Francisco Book Review called the book” a worthwhile mix of classical values and sincerity “.
When asked decades later about her favorite episodes of “Gilligan’s Island,” Ms. Wells mentioned “And Then There Were None,” which contained a dream sequence in which she was allowed to put a Cockney accent. She also quoted “Up at Bat,” an episode in which Gilligan imagined he had turned into Dracula.
“I loved being the old hag,” she said.
Dawn Elberta Wells was born in Reno, Nevada, on October 18, 1938, the only child to Joe Wesley Wells, a real estate developer, and Evelyn (Steinbrenner) Wells. Dawn studied chemistry at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, then became interested in theater and attended the University of Washington in Seattle. She graduated with a degree in theater arts and design in 1960 after taking time off to win a state beauty title and compete in the 1960 Miss America contest.
“Big deal,” she said in a 2016 interview with Forbes, making her victory at Miss Nevada clear. “There were only 10 women in the state at the time.”
For the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, her talent performance was a dramatic read from Sophocles’ “Antigone”.
A 1961 episode of the drama “The Roaring Twenties” made her film debut. When she was cast on “Gilligan’s Island” she only appeared on screen about two dozen times, mostly on prime-time series including “77 Sunset Strip” (multiple episodes), “Surfside Six”, “Hawaiian Eye “,” Bonanza “” and “Maverick. “
After her television career cooled, Ms. Wells returned to her first love: the theater, where she produced at least 100 productions nationwide. Her last TV role was in 2019 as the voice of a supernatural dentist in the Netflix animated series “The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants”.
Her last on-screen appearance was in a 2018 episode of Kaplans Korner about actors running an employment agency. Her only appearance on the soap opera was in 2016 in an episode of “The Bold and the Beautiful,” in which she played a fashion buyer from a wealthy family.
Ms. Wells’ 1962 marriage to Larry Rosen, a talent agent, ended in divorce in 1967. In the same year “Gilligan’s Island” went off the air. She is survived by a stepsister, Weslee Wells.
Ms. Wells continued to run nonprofit businesses. She was a prominent supporter of the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, the largest natural reserve in the country for African and Asian elephants.
She also taught acting and founded the nonprofit Idaho Film and Television Institute while living on her ranch in the Teton Valley. But a film career was never her childhood dream.
“I wanted to be a ballerina, then a chemist,” she recalled in a Forbes interview. “If I had to do it all over again, I would go into genetic medicine.”
Alex Traub contributed to the coverage.