On Wednesday December 30, actress Dawn Wells (Gilligan’s Island, The Town That Dreaded Sundown) passed away at age 82, due to complications caused by COVID-19, via CNN. Though Wells has played roles in over sixty theater productions, one-hundred and fifty television shows and seven movies, as well as taking part in many charitable causes throughout her career, the actress is most well known and remembered for playing the iconic role of Mary Ann on 60’s sitcom Gilligan’s Island.
— IMDb (@IMDb) December 30, 2020
“It was [Wells] pigtail-wearing character on Gilligan’s Island which made her a beloved star,” CNN states “and she had fun with it.” The actress reprised the role in animated spin-off Gilligan’s Planet as well as the made-for-TV movies Rescue From Gilligan’s Island, The Castaways on Gilligan’s Island and The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. According to The New York Times, Wells also appeared as Mary Ann in television shows including Alf, Baywatch, Herman’s Head and Meego, during a period when “Gilligan’s-themed episodes had a certain camp value” (The New York Times).
Wells always seemed to embrace the role that made her a household name, even writing two books related to the character: Mary Ann’s Gilligan’s Island Cookbook and What Would Mary Ann Do? A Guide to Life. The actress presented Sandra Bullock (Ocean’s 8, Miss Congeniality) with a recipe from her cookbook during a press junket for the film Gravity, claiming she and Bullock had both played castaways. For Sydney, Australia’s Channel 9, Wells served in the tongue-and-cheek role a “castaway correspondent” where she interviewed the likes of Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting, Aladdin), Eddie Murphy (Coming to America, Shrek) and Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman, Erin Brockovich), via CNN.
The New York Times reminisced on how Wells’ Gilligan’s Island character became so beloved and lasting, saying that Mary Ann Summers “radiated all-American wholesomeness, Midwestern practicality and a youthful naïve charm.” Conversely, castaway Ginger Grant embodied larger-the-life Hollywood glamour and charm. Despite being friends on the show, the vast difference in these women’s personalities led to a prevailing debate: Ginger or Mary Ann?
In a 2008 interview with The Television Academy Foundation, Wells commented on the phenomenon of the Ginger versus Mary Ann debate. While the actress found it fascinating that this became the lasting question from Gilligan’s Island, she firmly backed her own girl-next-door character.
“We shared in creating a cultural landmark that has continued to bring comfort and smiles to people during this difficult time,” said Ginger actress Tina Louise (Gilligan’s Island, The Stepford Wives), via CNN. “I hope that people will remember her the way that I do,” Wells fellow castaway continued fondly “always with a smile on her face” (CNN).
While Mary Ann wound up on Gilligan’s Island by sheer fate, winning a radio contest for a boat tour, Wells outshone nearly three-hundred and fifty actresses to win the part in the audition process for the sitcom. Prior to landing the role, Wells studied Chemistry and Theater Arts in college, represented Nevada in the Miss America Pageant and played small roles in a handful of television shows including Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip.
And of course,#MaryAnnForLife
— Jon Cryer (@MrJonCryer) December 30, 2020
Upon the news of Wells death, many entertainers expressed their love for the actress and the role of Mary Ann on social media. Journalist Mo Rocca (CBS News Sunday Morning, The Daily Show) met Wells when he had the opportunity to interview her, an event he called “delightful” while sharing pictures of them together on Twitter. Two and a Half Men‘s Jon Cryer (Pretty in Pink), who already suffered a loss this year in Conchata Ferrell, shared the warm experience of working with Wells when she guest-starred on his long-running CBS sitcom, via Twitter. Jane Lynch (Glee, The Weakest Link) wished a “bon voyage” to Mary Ann while sharing the sad news on Twitter and, later in the day, retweeted a clip of Wells performing as a part of Gilligan’s Island‘s musical trio, The Honeycombs.
In honor of Dawn Wells pic.twitter.com/ABcuxQ0jiD
— Vintage Los Angeles (@alisonmartino) December 30, 2020
Though the actress behind “America’s favorite castaway” has passed today, Wells legacy has been permanently etched in popular culture, via The Los Angeles Times. CNN reports that Mary Ann’s gingham dress and short-shorts remain on display in the lobby of The Hollywood Museum.