HER SWINGIN' '60s CREDENTIALS: She was the sweet, brown-eyed TV cutie who played Mary Ann Summers, the naive Kansas farm gal who boarded the S.S. Minnow for a three-hour tour and got shipwrecked for three years with six other castaways on "Gilligan's Island."
CATEGORIES OF SWINGIN' CHICK: TV Star, Movie Star
BIRTH: Reliable sources tell us she was born October 18th of '38, making her a ready 21 for the '60s and 25 when she was washed ashore on "Gilligan's Island." Her exotic birthplace: Reno, Nevada.
IMPACT ON THE '60s: She was definitely cute, but not a dazzler like glamorous Marilyn-style Swingin' Chick Tina Louise. Pushed aside in favor of the more glamorous Ginger early on, she was cropped out of the TV Guide cover that ran in May of '65. But ultimately Dawn has had the stronger impact over the years. While the show was on she got twice as much fan mail as any other castaway, something she tried to account for in a TV interview:
"I think the reason I got the most was it was boys and girls. I
imagine most of Tina's mail was from men and I think Mary Ann could be a girlfriend you
could trust and you could take her home. And I think young girls liked her too."
These days, she regularly beats Ginger in Internet popularity competitions. And even if "Gilligan's Island" was a lightweight show, it still brought Dawn lasting fame around the world. As she told the Journal of Longevity in '99, "There's a lot of me in Mary Ann and vice versa. Any place in the world where I go, I'm greeted with love. From Bejing to Johannesburg to Mexico. That's not bad to have people say how much they love you and that you meant something to them in their childhood. Why would anyone not want that?"
CAREER IN THE '60s: Not until that fateful trip on the S.S. Minnow did she become a star. Dawn, however, was the very personification of a na´ve Kansas cutie, something akin to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz but without the dog. At 26 years old, Dawn Wells was the youngest of the castaways. Mary Ann was rarely at the center of the show's plots; in fact, she and the Professor weren't even mentioned in the original version of the theme song. What's more, in the pilot episode filmed in late '63, the Mary Ann character didn't even exist, instead the character was a secretary named Bunny, played by blonde Nancy McCarthy. CBS execs saw the pilot and asked to have the Bunny character changed, so creator Sherwood Schwartz rewrote the Bunny character as an innocent farm girl named Mary Ann. Dozens of actresses auditioned for the role, including Raquel Welch at the last minute. Said Dawn in an interview shown on the E! channel:
"She walked in with this beautiful face and beautiful body, and I said well, that's the end of that, I won't be getting this. I don't know if they offered it to her and she said no. She would've been a better Ginger, actually."
The storylines revealed that Mary Ann had an Aunt Martha and Uncle George back home in Winfield, Kansas, and she usually did all the cooking on the island (coconut cream pie was a specialty, though who knows where the dairy products came from). Dawn spent her mid-twenties shipwrecked through 98 episodes and three seasons ('64-'67).
CAREER OUTSIDE THE '60s: Dawn Wells wasn't always a castaway. She was Miss Nevada in 1959 and a competitor in the Miss America pageant. Then she graduated from the University of Washington as a Theatre Arts major. Dawn's early light was shining in lots of '50s and '60s TV shows. She had steady work in various '50s TV shows, then three "Gilligan" TV movies in the '70s and '80s (Rescue from in '78, The Castaways on in '79, and The Harlem Globetrotters on in '81) and the animated "Gilligan's Planet" in '82 (she did the voices of both Mary Ann and Ginger). Her screen resume is fleshed out with minor movies (The Town That Dreaded Sundown and Winterhawk in '76, Return to Boggy Creek in '78), and over 100 appearances on TV series and talk shows. She's also hosted her own fishing show called "Dawn Wells' Reel Adventures," and she's produced children's TV shows. Her latest forays into TV have been on national commercials for Western Union in which she plays her Mary Ann character and says that she married the Professor. She's been in sixty+ theatrical productions, playing "a range that you never in a million years would have expected from me as Mary Ann," she told the Journal of Longevity in '99. She's also got her own line of clothes called the Wishing Wells Collection, which are touted as "special clothes for special people" -- the physically challenged who have had strokes or other disabling illnesses. She also runs the Dawn Wells Film Actors Boot Camp at her Teton Wells Ranch 35 miles from Jackson Hole, Wyoming (one week of classes, room and board at the ranch costs $2000). Finally, fans of "Gilligan's Island" will love this tidbit, which ran in the L.A. Times in June, 2001:
"Three members of the original cast of the 1960s sitcom 'Gilligan's Island -- Bob Denver (Gilligan), Dawn Wells (Mary Ann) and Russell Johnson (the professor) -- are reuniting for a TV movie, Surviving Gilligan's Island: The Incredibly True Story of the Longest Three-Hour Tour in History. CBS describes the movie as a 're-creation of pivotal events that took place during production of the series'."
TALENT: As Mary Ann she was a convincing clone of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, plus she sang on the show with The Honeybees, the vocal group (comprised of herself, Ginger, and Lovey) that sang only one song -- "You Need Us" -- on one episode (the one where a Beatlesque rock group called the Mosquitos comes to the island). A well-rounded talent, she even wrote her own cookbook called Mary Ann's "Gilligan's Island" Cookbook, featuring family recipes and contributions from the other castaways.
HER '60s LOOK: Though she was not the instant eye-catching looker that fellow castaway and fellow Swingin' Chick Tina Louise was, Dawn had/has/and will always have the timeless country-girl appeal that still works today. On "Gilligan's Island" her clothes weren't always demure gingham, however; some of her best outfits put her in boots and a short skirt (yet another example of the castaways' bizarre packing strategy). But no matter what she wore, Mary Ann always looked appealing, quite a feat when you consider that the meals on the island usually involved variations on the coconut theme. "Every second I was dieting," she told the E! channel, "because I'm so little and I'm so short, and I was in those skimpy outfits. I remember Sherwood Schwartz coming to me once in the second season saying to take off five pounds, very concerned of that image that was important." Also to her credit, unlike the other women who went on the three-hour tour she was slightly more sensible in what she brought along, jeez you woulda thought Lovey was goin' on a three-month cruise or something with all the hats and jewelry she brought. Here's how Dawn explained her appeal, good health, and fit figure to the Journal of Longevity in '99:
"I think a lot of my continued good health is genetic, but also I was raised with good, solid nutrition. My upbringing with my mother was always very balanced. There was always a garden growing. We had fresh vegetables, fresh fruit -- I don't think I ever ate a canned vegetable. Plus, I always make sure to take a multivitamin. ... I take a supplement that contains vitamin A, among other things, to guard agains macular degeneration."
LIFESTYLE: We've got no lovelife info on her during the decade, except this addition from a reliable source -- Dawn was married once, is not married now, and has no kids. That's all we've got. But think for a second what Ginger Grant would've done the first day back in Hollywood had they been rescued: The mind reels, right? Now compare that image to what Mary Ann said she would do upon her return to civilization: "The first thing I'll do when I get back home is bake an apple pie, milk the cow, and feed the chickens." Again, the mind reels. In real life, Dawn describes herself as a doer (despite having bad knees since she was young), as she told the Journal of Longevity in '99: "I love the outdoors. I fish, horseback ride, swim. In fact, the best thing for me is water aerobics. That's what I love the most. I'm not a sitter. Even in my office, I stand at my desk." Said Dawn on the E! channel, "There's a lot of Mary Ann in me, and still a little bit. I think Dawn Wells is more sophisticated or more worldly because I've gone more places than Mary Ann did, but I I think the core of me is very much so."
EXTRAS: Besides Dawn, several other Swingin' Chicks of the '60s competed in national beauty pageants, most notably Mary Ann Mobley, who was Miss America and went on to become an Elvis Girl ... "Gilligan's Island" debuted September 26, 1964, its timeslot Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. on CBS ... the show ran for 98 episodes ... the animated series "The New Adventures of Gilligan" in '74-'77 was followed by a one-season cartoon called "Gilligan's Planet" in '82, which placed the castaways on another planet trying to get back to Earth, but the professor couldn't even fix a boat, so how was he supposed to fix a rocket ship? ... according to The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, Gilligan was the character's last name; Bob Denver and series creator Sherwood Schwartz discussed a first name for Gilligan -- it would've been Willie, but was never used ... the other full names of the characters on the show were Skipper Jonas Grumby, Thurston Howell III, Lovey Howell -- yes, Lovey was her first name -- plus Professor Roy Hinkley and Ginger Grant ... Mary Ann was originally considered to be such a minor character, she -- like the Professor -- wasn't even mentioned in the theme song:
"Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip, that started from a tropic port aboard a tiny ship
The mate was a mighty sailin' man, the skipper brave and sure; five passengers set sail that day for a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour
The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed; if not for the courage of the fearless crew, the Minnow would be lost, the Minnow would be lost
The ship set ground on the shore of this uncharted desert isle, with Gilligan, the Skipper too, the millionaire and his wife, the movie star, and the rest are here on Gilligan's Isle"
... the later version changed the last line to "the Professor and Mary Ann, here on Gilligan's Isle" ... at her official gingham-clad Web site, Mary Ann's Official Web Site, she writes that she "is an avid world traveler, having climbed the Mountains in Rwanda to view the mountain gorillas, canoed the Solomon Islands where women had never been before, and she has just completed her fourth Safari and recently returned from a trip around the world on the Concorde" -- you go, girl! ... said Dawn on the E! channel: "I'm happy that as an actress who started out wanting to make a living, never wanting to be a star, just wanted to work at something I loved to do, that I've been able to do that. The character of Mary Ann has given me more longevity than perhaps I would've had otherwise."