Dawn Wells, Mary Ann on ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ Dies at 82


Dawn Wells, the actress who radiated all-American wholesomeness, Midwestern practicality and a youthful naïve charm as the character Mary Ann on the hit 1960s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island,” died on Wednesday at a nursing home in Los Angeles. She was 82.

Her publicist, Harlan Boll, said the cause was related to Covid-19.

Debuting on CBS in 1964, “Gilligan’s Island” followed an unlikely septet of day trippers (on a “three-hour tour,” as the theme song explained) who ended up stranded on a desert island.

There, shipwrecked alongside a movie star (who spent most of her time in evening gowns), a science professor, a pompous, older rich couple, and two wacky crew members was Mary Ann Summers (Ms. Wells), a farm girl from Kansas who had won the trip in a local radio contest.

The character had a relatively scant back story — it was said that she worked at the hardware store back home and had a boyfriend — but Mary Ann’s persona alone made her memorable. Gingham blouses, short shorts, double ponytails and perky 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 name the professor (Russell Johnson) and Mary Ann as well. 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 pretty much implausible and its humor simplistic made no difference to the show’s millions of fans or its producers, who would discover in the years to come that they had spawned a cultural phenomenon.

Though “Gilligan’s Island” lasted only three seasons, canceled in 1967, it hardly slipped from the horizon. Endless reruns ensued, and the cast members had a series of encore performances. Ms. Wells, for one, reprised her role as Mary Ann in three reunion TV movies: “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 did the voices of both her character and Ms. Louise’s movie star for “Gilligan’s Planet,” an animated spinoff series. And she went on to play Mary Ann in episodes of at least four other (unrelated) shows: “Alf” (1986), “Baywatch” (1989), “Herman’s Head” (1991) and “Meego” (1997). “Gilligan’s”-themed episodes had a certain camp value.

For the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, her talent performance was a dramatic reading from Sophocles’ “Antigone.”

A 1961 episode of the drama “The Roaring Twenties” was her screen debut. When she was cast on “Gilligan’s Island,” she had appeared onscreen only about two dozen times, mostly in prime-time series, including “77 Sunset Strip” (multiple episodes), “Surfside Six,” “Hawaiian Eye,” “Bonanza” and “Maverick.”

Ms. Wells went on to operate charity-oriented businesses. She was a prominent supporter of the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, the nation’s largest natural habitat refuge developed for African and Asian elephants.

She also taught acting, creating the nonprofit Idaho Film and Television Institute while living at her ranch in the Teton Valley. But a screen career was never her childhood dream.

“I wanted to be a ballerina, then a chemist,” she recalled in the Forbes interview. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d go into genetic medicine.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.



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