The part of Mary Ann was played by Dawn
Wells - pure Americana herself. Dawn's
great-great grandfather drove a stage coach
from Reno to Virginia City during the Silver
Rush. She was born in Reno, Nevada. Her
father didn't own Wells Fargo, but he did
own a trucking company called Wells Cargo.
Dawn planned to become a ballerina, but
trick knees ended that dream. Her knees
looked good, at least, and the rest of her
looked great. She became Miss Nevada, and
participated in the 1960 Miss America
contest. "I thought it would be a good
experience to get in front of an audience and
maintain that kind of composure," she says
now, "I never had any idea that I'd win. It
was a wonderful experience doing the Miss
Like the other Miss America's of that era,
Dawn was a true model for America's youth.
She was not only beautiful, but bright -
treasurer of the student body in school and a
member of the debate team.
"I was very puritanical, she recalls. "I
didn't really drink, and of course there were
no drug problems. I was very square. I was
very much Mary Ann, I think that the soul of
Mary Ann was very much in essence me. I
was raised very strictly. My parents were
divorced - I was very close to both of them
but I lived with my mother who was very
strict with me. I couldn't get away with
anything, not that I would've." Like her
character Mary Ann, Dawn was a sweet,
sensible girl. Mary Ann and the Professor
were the most logical and capable inhabitants
of Gilligan's Island.
A chemistry major at Stephens College in
Missouri, Dawn later switched to drama.
After getting her AA at the two-year college,
she went on to a BA in drama at the University
of Washington. "One of the hardest
things starting the acting was eliminating the
chemistry side of me and just concentrating
on the emotional, artistic side of me, 'cause
I'm a very practical person, and I tend to
think things through. When you act you
should 'be it,' not 'think it.' So in preparing
how my life was going to go I said I'd try to
be an actress and I'd give myself a year."
Though she had very few credits - (a star of
summer stock at the Pink Garter Theater in
Jackson Hole, Wyoming), she found work
easily. "I hate to admit that because it brings
false hopes to the poor kids thinking of going
into the business, but I came here and got an
agent within six weeks and got my first job
within six weeks."
She was in a play called Black-Eyed Susan
with Mercedes McCambridge and Leon
Ames. Later she appeared in the film "The
New Interns" and became friends with co-star
Barbara Eden. On TV shows like Burke's
Law and Wagon Train, she was usually cast
an "the ingenue. I played a couple of hookers,
but not many."
When Gilligan's Island came along, Dawn
didn't grab it. She didn't know about it.
They filmed the pilot without her! The
original half hour concerned Gilligan, the
Skipper, and their two rich passengers. The
other characters were minor. As Dawn
recalls it, "In the original, Mary Ann, Ginger,
and the Professor were three school teachers I
think. CBS or [producer] Sherwood Schwartz,
I'm not sure which, decided
to give it a little more variety, and make the
characters different. Tina, Russell and
myself didn't do the pilot. I know that John
Gabriel was the Professor, and that one of
girls was played by Kit Smythe and the other
girl was Nancy McCarthy." Dawn came
aboard as luckless Mary Ann - marooned on
her first trip away from home.
When the reviews came in, everybody on the
island was luckless. Sherwood Schwartz had
the name Gilligan out of a phone book,
hunting for a funny name that would immediately
indicate the show was a comedy. The
critics still didn't know.
"It is impossible that a more inept, moronic
or humorless show has ever appeared on the
home tube," wrote UPI Critic Rick DuBrow.
The show was ridicules as the ultimate example
of how TV quality had degenerated.
At the time, Bob Denver had to admit that
Gilligan's Island was not exactly brilliant
TV. "It doesn't take a mature intellect to
laugh at a monkey running off with Gilligan's
dinner or a guy getting hit on the head by a
With most of the slapstick centered on Gilligan
and the Skipper, with dizzy, bickering
from Mr. Howell and his wife, and movie
star Ginger Grant provide the breathtaking
scenery, it seemed that the last two characters,
Mary Ann and the Professor, had little
to do. In fact, they were merely "the rest"
as far as the show's theme songs was concerned.
But soon, the producers realized that
Mary Ann was an important cast member.
"I always thought in my mind here's Ginger,
this beautiful girl, this sexy girl, and of
course that's where the male attention is
going to go," says Dawn today. "I didn't
know until 1988 that I got the most fan mail.
I assumed Gilligan would've, or the young
men writing to Tina. I got the most fan
mail, which surprise me, but I realize now
that I was everybody's kind of girl next door,
a fantasy but not a fantasy - that reality is
that you could probably approach Mary Ann,
and she might be the girl you take home to
mother, or that you might tell your troubles
Ginger Grant could make men swoon - a
perfumed beauty in slinky gowns. But Mary
Ann was a breath of fresh air in sporty short
shorts. In fact, the show's censors were worried
more about Dawn than Tina "Just like
Barbara Eden on Jeannie, I couldn't show
my navel. The shorts had to be high cut."
The alternative was to wear her other trademark
costume, the gingham skirt.
Dawn recalls getting a plentiful amount of
puppy-love mail from boys who wanted to
marry her, and thousands of letters from girls
asking for beauty tips on how to have such
wonderful curly hair. She laughs lightly: "I
also got an awful lot of sexy dirty fan mail!
I still do. I get letters with religious overtones
- about what a good girl Mary Ann is.
And they start talking about your legs, and
your chest! These letters combine goodness
and sexuality. I didn't think Mary Ann was
the sex image, I thought Ginger was, but I
did get a great amount of these letters, and
I've had some dangerous experiences.
I think it's because people feel they can approach
me. And if they feel they can approach you they
assume you're going to
accept them, and you have to be very careful
how you reject them."
While some may have fantasized about
matching themselves with Dawn Wells, the
big preoccupation with Gilligan's Island fans
in general was trying to figure out likely
matches among the lost islanders. Who
might've been sleeping with whom?
Would Mary Ann have gone for Gilligan?
The Skipper? Logic would favor the Professor...
"That's interesting," says Dawn. "There was
some matchmaking with Gilligan and Mary
Ann also. The Howell's tried to match us up
and get us engaged at one point, but I think
everything became taboo because of censorship.
Here were all these people on the
island and nobody's watching where the girls
are sleeping and the boys are sleeping. The
Howell's were married, which helped some,
but the whole sexual innuendo was just left
untouched." She laughs. "This was pre Norman Lear!
I'd love to see what Gilligan's Island would be now,
we'd all be chosen living in the same hut. I don't
"Now what Mary Ann would do? I don't
know. I think she'd be very understanding
and forgiving of Gilligan, and protective of
him, and yet I think there would be a tremendous
amount of respect for the Professor, so
I don't know what she'd do..."
In real life, Dawn married agent Larry
Rosen, but it lasted just about as long as the
For three years, sweet Mary Ann and the rest
of the islanders enjoyed good ratings. The
show left the air due to a scheduling conflict.
CBS had dropped Gunsmoke and replaced it
with Mannix. When viewers protested, CBS
had to bring it back. The half hour after
Gilligan's Island was still unscheduled, so it
was an easy decision to ax Gilligan, add the
free half hour, and bring back Marshal
Dillon. How many viewers and newspaper
critics would dare defend their slapstick
sitcom? Today a network thinks twice about
canceling a show in the Top 20 or Top 30,
but back then networks often dropped shows
on the basis of demographics (Red Skelton),
politics (The Smothers Brothers), or image
It was a rough few months. Scripts had been
bought and the cast had fully expected to
start filming. The news of the cancellation
came in March. In May, Dawn's father
died. She appeared in a few TV episodes,
including an installment of The Invaders, but
her practical side emerged again, and she
decided not to pursue TV.
"I thought basically after Gilligan's Island I'd
be playing the character of Mary Ann for the
next ten years if I didn't stretch some more.
You get typed pretty easily. So I did national
tours, regional theater, and dinner theater."
She made two films in 1977, Return to Boggy
Creek and The Town That Dreaded Sundown.
On stage, she veered from comedy to play
Ava Gardner's part in Night of the Iguana.
Her favorite role was in The Effects of Gamma
Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. She
took the challenge of musicals (they're
Playing Our Song), won fine reviews in Bell,
Book and Candle, The Owl and the Pussycat,
and Chapter Two, and is also proud of doing
a thriller called Fatal Attraction in 1986 (no
relation to the 1987 movie).
She always had to be wary of critics who
knew her only as Mary Ann. "Always.
They usually come with an attitude
because of it: 'Prove it to me.' Because most
of the critics are still making fun of Gilligan's
Most critics who see her praise her - while
still panning the past: "Never mind that
Dawn Wells played Mary Ann in 'Gilligan's
Island,' the Minneapolis Tribune wrote of her
role in Chapter Two, "she's a brilliant actress
with a superb sense of timing."
"When I do a role it's real important to me
that what I'm doing has quality. Because
everyone will come see Mary Ann one time -
what does she look like now, what's she
like in person - but unless they come away
having enjoyed the play and feeling all the
communication that happens in the theater,
they're not going to come back and see you.
I've been lucky - 'cause I really - knock on
wood - have not been out of work except by
choice since the series went off the air, and
that's pretty tough to say in this day and
During nearly fifteen years of theatrical
touring, Dawn called Nashville her home
base. She had a steady relationship for all
those years with Tom Ervin. It was a slightly
unorthodox partnership. "We never lived
together or anything. We both had our own
lives kind of. It was sort of a nice arrangement,
we're no longer together but it was
nice. He was a lovely man, and I'm very
close to his children. Since I don't have
children that was an important part for me.
It was certainly unconventional I suppose, but
we both had our own lives and we were committed
to each other as if we were married,
there was never any of that playing around
kind of stuff."
Then why didn't she marry? "Truthfully
both of us were very into what we were
doing and I feel to be a wife you should be
there all the time and I was out of town for
three weeks or three months, and I don't
think you can take on the responsibilities of
a wife and do that. So our arrangement was
adequate for both of us."
She came back to California in March 1987,
tired of the constant touring, eager for something
new. Oddly, in one of the last Gilligan
TV movies, Mary Ann also had the chance
for marriage, and balked. "She went back
home on one of our specials to marry her
old-time sweetheart - she was committed to
go through it and didn't - that's kind of
Mary Ann. She would be the one helping
milk the cows and helping make the decisions on the
farm. She wouldn't sit back and be taken
care of. She wouldn't be Lovey [Mrs.
Howell on the show]. She would be a
contributor: I don't think that like Dawn
Wells she's overly aggressive or overly
unfeminine. I'm not a women's libber in the
case that I have to prove that I'm better than
a man. I think women can do a lot of things
equally as well as a man, but I sure still like
being a woman. I think there are advantages to
both sexes, that they ought to keep them in their
place. I mean I'm a believer in just everybody
being self-reliant. You have to answer to yourself
first, and then when your cup is full, and
when you're a full person, the love can be given
to someone else. I don't believe you should
take something away from someone else to
make you a complete person. Two happy
people make a happy couple, not one unhappy
person trying to get the happiness from the
other. That's unhealthy I think. I hope
someday to remarry. I'm not antimarriage at
all. I believe in love and I believe in a relationship
and a commitment and all of that, very
much so. But I also like making my own
In her career, Dawn's decision seems to be
diversity. She's enjoying her work as an actress.
She's also been active in teaching advanced acting
courses at Stephens College in
Missouri, her old alma mater. She also is a
clothing designer. Her fashions are practical,
attractive, and for very special people. "The
fellow that I was going with in Nashville, his
mother was in a nursing home for ten years.
The ladies have their bathrobes turned around
backward so they can get them on - and there's
no dignity or self respect. They don't feel good
about themselves. Finally I asked myself why?
Why do we treat out senior citizens like that?
So I designed these cheerful, pretty bathrobes
and nightshirts. They open down the back and
are easily accessible, washable and durable. I
think it's something that's really needed." She
got the idea when she was appearing in "They're
Playing Our Song," and her costume - a skirt,
blouse, and sweater - were all one piece,
attached in the back with Velcro for quick
changes between scenes. "And I thought, why
can't you make this costume work for these
people? So that's kind of what I've done. I'm
very excited about it."
At one time, a woman in her late forties or
early fifties seemed old. There's nothing old
about Dawn, who has a vivacious personality, a
charming and frequent laugh and hardly looks
her age. She believes in fitness. "I like water
aerobics a lot, the pressure of the water kind of
contours your body, I think. I also think swimming
is one the best things for your body. I
also have a rowing machine I use. I'm not a
health nut, but all my life I've been a real
balanced food eater, I've dieted all my life. My
father was very big and very tall, my mother's
very little, I always felt I'd be my mother's
height and my father's weight, so from day one
I was always very nutrition-conscious of what's
good for you and what isn't. I also think it's
partly hereditary. I'm part Italian, and I think
the Italian side of me, with the oils in the skin
and all of that, helps too. Contrary to what
everybody says, I'm a sun worshipper. I know
that's terrible, but I like a little color. I believe
in water, I drink a lot of water."
"I consider myself to be very fortunate that I've
been working so much and so long. A pianist
doesn't play the piano once a year and think
he's wonderful - you've got to
keep at it, you've got to keep
growing, and you've got to keep
improving, but that's the beauty
and the joy of art to me, that's the
creative process. I can't sit idle.
There are a lot of aspects to me
that need fulfilling. Maybe part of
it's because I have not had children
and a family, so that there's another
area that needs to be taken up,
the slack needs to be taken up a
little, but I'm a very happy person.
I'm very fortunate, and I'm real
content with my life. I like where
I am and who I am, and that's a
Recently she took a trip to Africa,
joining climbers on an excursion to
the lair of mountain gorillas. "I
climbed from eight thousand to
twelve thousand feet in one day,
hacking through the jungle, and I
got ten feet from the silverback
gorilla and the whole family. Even
now I get goose bumps - it's like
taking yourself back to prehistoric
times. This five-hundred
pound creature looking you in the
eye - no hostility - gentleness,
curiosity, total trust. It was really
something, it almost changes your
life. I've traveled a lot, to Russia
and all of that, but Africa - that
was a real experience for me."
It seems that no matter how often
Dawn has been around the world
she inevitably ends up back on
Gilligan's Island. There have been
three TV movies so far, and constant
talk of another. She doesn't
mind. For over 30 years now, the
various Gilligan's Islanders have
remained friends. Alan Hale, Jim
Backus and Natalie Schaefer have
passed away, but Dawn was quite
good friends with them. In fact,
she says, "I adore Bob Denver and
his wife. They don't live in town
though. He's really shy, something
of a loner. And I see Russell of
course. However, I haven't seen
much of Tina since she won't do
any of our specials."
Though the various members of the show have been quoted as bitter about the
lack of residuals (the standard at the time called for payment
for only the first five reruns of each episode), Dawn, true to her Mary Ann
spirit, looks on the bright side. "The residuals we got probably doubled
the salary we made. Yeah, somebody else is making a lot off it now, but
because it's on the air you're able to make money somewhere else."
"We didn't plan a strategy," she admits. "We didn't think about merchandising
dolls and posters. We were doing a show, that's what we were
doing. Nowadays you might do it a little differently - you know you've got to
capture the time you're on the air and make the most of it, but I
think I've made a living because of Gilligan's popularity. My price has gone
up, my choices are different. I'm not saying that it isn't a hindrance
in some ways too. It's a double-edged sword I suppose.
"I have good memories, good feelings, it was a wonderful experience. It wasn't
the most creative acting job I ever had, but I loved the character,
I loved the experience of doing it, and I went on. I don't have any hostile
feelings about it. I have such an animosity for actors who get on a series
and then bad-rap it. 'It's a piece of garbage, I wish I were out doing
Shakespeare.' Then why take the job away from some actor that would love
to do it? Why try to sabotage something that others are working hard at? If
you don't want to work on television then don't do it!"
Dawn still gets about fifty fan letters a week from Gilligan fans old and new.
"It's kind of nice. Some fans follow you through it all, send me
Christmas cards, and when I'm on the road they come and see me. I was doing
a show and afterwards a whole family came to see me backstage.
One of them said, 'I watched you when I was growing up, my parents loved you,
my children are now watching you.' So you have three generations watching
you. That's something. We've never been off the air in over thirty years,"
she adds with a laugh, "if you could stand it!"
She seems to be able to stand the constant Gilligan reminders. "I got on the
plane last year in Disney World, coming out of Orlando flying into
Atlanta, and the entire Eastern Airlines plane broke into the Gilligan's
Island song! [laughs] I mean...it was thirty years ago! My fantasy is going
to a costume party as Mary Ann in my gingham dress, gray pigtails, and a
walker. How long can we do this!"
She admits that every now and then she'll catch a rerun. "It's really kind
of fun how it holds up - nonsensical silly slapstick humor is what it was.
Escapism is all it was, but it was one of the best there was." It was the
ultimate escapist show - people trying to escape the island every week.
But with Mary Ann on the island, there was also good reason to stay.