Dawn Wells, just months before COVID-19 death, planned to keep acting: ‘One play a year’

Steve Dorfman, Palm Beach Post
·4 min read

This interview was originally published by the Palm Beach Post, part of the USA TODAY Network, on March 2, 2020. Dawn Wells died Wednesday at the age of 82 of COVID-19 complications.

The pinnacle of Dawn Wells’ career may have happened more than 50 years ago — but not a day passes, the 81-year-old actress says, when she doesn’t feel “blessed” to have appeared in all 98 episodes of “Gilligan’s Island” as the iconic Mary Ann.

“It was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life,” she says of the show that originally aired from 1964 to 1967 and then became a staple of syndication worldwide (it still airs on Sundays on MeTV Network). “We all knew how special it was at the time.”

As to why the show’s — and Mary Ann’s — appeal has endured through the decades, Wells has a few theories.

“First, we all truly did get along off-screen. Alan Hale, who played the skipper, really was like the leader. And Bob Denver, who played Gilligan, was such a sweet and wonderful man — and was everybody’s ‘little buddy.’ Our producer, Sherwood Schwartz, cast the show brilliantly. He had a vision for these different characters to come together to form a misfit family.”

In that sense, the show — for all its critically panned slapstick goofiness — was actually ahead of its time. Back then, TV sitcoms featured only traditional nuclear families.

Wells also believes there was, and is, a timelessness about the show.

“Think about it: Because we’re stranded on the island, there are no outside cues about fashion or technology. You can’t tell by cars or clothes ‘when’ we are. ”

R.I.P. Dawn Wells: Remembering my boat cruise with lovely Mary Ann from 'Gilligan's Island'

Mary Ann, a farm girl from Kansas, has resonated with both men and women of all generations, Wells surmises, because “this character — her fair-mindedness, helpfulness, sincerity and intelligence — really was me in a lot of ways.”

Indeed, Wells — a native of Reno and Miss Nevada in 1959 — attended the all-girl liberal arts Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., so she believes she “understood that Midwestern mindset.”

She also cites the dichotomy of Mary Ann versus Tina Louise’s glamorous movie star character Ginger as ultimately being in her favor: “Don’t get me wrong — Tina was so beautiful and sexy and I learned so much from her. But Mary Ann was wholesome, approachable and attainable. She’s the girl you’d have a crush on and want to bring home to Mom.”

Despite what critics may have thought of “Gilligan’s Island,” Wells took her craft seriously.

“Many of my favorite scenes were the dream sequences when I got to play other characters. There was one episode when I get hit on the head and imagine I’m Ginger. Tina was such a great sport about me mimicking her voice.”

Before falling in love with acting, Wells was a dancer and ballerina but “my knee kept dislocating, so I switched to theater.”

After two years at Stephens College (where she was a chemistry major), she transferred to the University of Washington and graduated in 1960 with a degree in theater arts and design.

“I went straight to Hollywood, got an agent and started getting TV work right away.”

She was married for five years (1962-67) to a talent agent but after their divorce never remarried.

“I always wanted to be a mother and have a big family,” she says. “But I never found the right person.”

Wells says she had no desire for movie fame, preferring instead the immediate feedback of stage work.

“I loved honing my craft so I did as many theatrical productions as I could.” She estimates she’s appeared in around 100 different stage productions in her career, ranging from dramas and comedies to musicals.

And she has no plans to slow down any time soon: “I still do at least one play a year.”

In her free time, Wells enjoys fly fishing, oil painting, ice skating, cooking and traveling.

“I once got to travel around the world on the Concorde. My life has always been an adventure and I’m blessed that it still can be.”

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Dawn Wells dead: 'Gilligan's Island' star's final interview