R.I.P. Dawn Wells, Mary Ann of Gilligan's Island
The beloved sitcom star was 82.
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Dawn Wells was one of the most beloved television stars of all time. The charming character of Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island helped the actress win the admiration of generations of fans all over the world.
The fictional Mary Ann may have been from Kansas, but Wells was born and bred a Western gal. Her roots in the West stretched back to the gold rush in the 19th century. One hundred years later, her father owned the legendary Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas.
Wells double-majored in theater and pre-med at the University of Washington at Seattle. During her tenure, she won a scholarship after winning Miss Nevada and competing in the Miss America pageant. After graduating, she decided to give herself two years to try out acting.
"I said, 'I'll give myself two years. If I'm not working I'm going back to med school,'" Wells told Gilbert Gottfried in 2016. "And I started working right away."
The Reno native represented Nevada in the 1960 Miss America pageant. A year later, she was landing small roles on TV. Miss Nevada's first television appearance came on 77 Sunset Strip in 1961, during a restaurant scene in "The Corsican Caper." The cast obviously clicked with Wells, as she appeared in three more episodes that year, playing different characters each time. In this pre-Gilligan era, she also appeared on Surfside 6 and Hawaiian Eye, other hip crime shows related to 77 Sunset Strip in the Warner Bros. family.
Western roles on Bonanza and Laramie honed her chops until the big one came along.
Yet, when creator Sherwood Schwartz filmed his Gilligan's Island pilot in 1963, Wells was not part of the cast. "The movie star" was nowhere to be found, either. Instead, two "secretaries," Ginger and Bunny, played by Kit Smythe and Nancy McCarthy, respectively, set sail with the Skipper and his little buddy.
The sitcom was wisely recast and retooled — even the location was shifted from the Caribbean to the Pacific. Wells beat out some other famous contenders for her part. Even Raquel Welch auditioned for the role.
As Gilligan's Island quickly became one of the iconic sitcoms of the Sixties, Wells became somewhat typecast as the innocent farm girl. Not that she seemed to mind. She embraced her Gilligan's fame. In fact, at some point in her long career, Wells ended up playing all three female castaways — yes, including Ginger and Lovey. She was game to keep voicing her character in Saturday morning cartoons like Gilligan's Planet. She later reprised her role on ALF and Baywatch.
"At first I tried to break my Gilligan image, but now it’s a hoot. I'm like the Beaver—part of TV history," she told People magazine in 1985.
In recent years, she continued to show her love of Mary Ann, becoming an ambassador for MeTV. Wells exuded the warmth, kindness and honesty we all had come to expect from her. She even taste-tested coconut water for us.
On December 30, Wells died at the age of 82. She will be deeply missed.