Ginger Or Mary Ann? It's Mary Ann
The legacy of Dawn Wells, One Of The First Stars Felled By Covid 19, is to live on Gilligan's Island forever
Dawn Wells, the girl we fell in love with on the vintage 60s sitcom, Gilligan's Island, has become one of the first high-profile Hollywood celebrities to die from complications related to the Covid 19 virus.
As the tragedies of the pandemic overwhelm us, we focus on this much-loved actress, who passed at age 82, and the phenomenon of a show that has become a lasting part of American culture.
TOP ROW: Jim Backus as Thurston Howell III, Natalie Schafer as "Lovey" Wentworth-Howell, Tina Louise as Ginger Grant, Alan Hale Jr. as Captain Jonas "The Skipper" Grumby, Dawn Wells as Mary Ann Summers. BOTTOM ROW: Russell Johnson as Professor Roy Hinkley, PhD, Bob Denver as Gilligan, first mate of the SS Minnow.
Dawn Wells October 18, 1938 – December 30, 2020
Ginger or Mary Ann?
That was the question we asked growing up, defining ourselves by our attraction to the sexpot Ginger or the sweet Mary Ann, the girl next door,
More recently you might have asked about Ginger or Mary Ann - which of the only two major cast members still alive will be the next lost? Now we have the answer, but unlike so many others taken by this cruel disease, her memory will live on as long as children, and the child within us all, enjoys reruns of what has become a TV classic.
It is amazing that a silly sitcom about a yacht shipwrecked on an island in the middle of an ocean still plays in an endless loop on TV almost every day in America, and in many other parts of the world.
When Gilligan’s Island first aired on the CBS network from 1964 until 1967, it wasn’t a big hit. It barely made the top 20 list of shows in its first year and went down from there in its second season. It was cancelled after its third season.
There are only 98 original episodes. The first season of 36 episodes were in black and white, but with its lasting popularity, they were all converted using digital technology into color. There were three TV sequels between 1978 and 1982.
While thousands of shows from that era more than half a century ago have disappeared from distribution and been forgotten, the legend of the SS Minnow and its comedic crew has grown and flourished.
In the late 1960s and especially the 1970s, Gilligan became a hit in TV syndication (the re-selling of old shows for new audiences).
The timing could not have been better. By the 1980s there were many new independent TV stations in the U.S. hungry for content to fill the hours. That was boosted as cable TV emerged with whole networks targeted to very specific audience segments – from children to seniors, and especially to those from18 to 49 most coveted by advertisers. For generations of children, Gilligan was a delicious discovery.
Those channels of distribution have only expanded since in the 21st century - first with arrival of digital TV (Wells worked for years with MeTV, when it aired the show every day), and again demand built with the expansion of streaming networks like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and others with an unquenchable appetite for more and more programming.
It was never Shakespeare. Gilligan was not a very complex or sophisticated show but that was part of its charm. Each of the cast members were stereotypes - easily understood,, and consistent in their actions. There was the boisterous captain aka The Skipper, the wise professor, the pompous millionaire and his airhead wife, the goofy first mate Gilligan, played perfectly by the late Bob Denver, and of course the sexy, glam Ginger and the down to earth, real girlfriend type Mary Ann.
The producers, including show creator Sherwood Schwartz, later said that all of the characters except one were scripted and shaped in advance in the scripts but the exception was Mary Ann. As Wells later recalled, they told her she had leeway to help shape the character based on her own upbringing in Reno, Nevada, where she was born October 18, 1938. The producers used to call her their “Kansas farm girl.”
Wells was not in the original pilot episode for Gilligan, shot in 1963. What became her role, a character called Bunny, was played by actress Nancy McCarthy, as a secretary (as was Ginger). It was only after Wells beat out Raquel Welch, among others, for her part that she was given a backstory as a simple farm girl from Winfield, Kansas.
She had earned a college degree in theater and drama at the University of Washington, and was named Miss Nevada,in 1959, appearing in the Miss America pageant in 1960, before coming to Hollywood where she would have roles in dozens of TV shows and a number of movies.
But in the public mind, she was forever identified by her Gilligan role.
Why did we love her? While Ginger was movie star sexy and almost unattainable, Mary Ann Summers was down to earth, a girl you might take to the prom, or out for a burger and shake. She is the girl you might marry, and the would be the homemaker and mom waiting at the door for dad each evening.
In real life, Wells was married to a Hollywood talent agent for five years in the 1960s, but that ended in divorce. She never had any children.
Gilligan was the high point of Wells career, and it helped sustain her. She was in every spinoff TV movie and animated show and wrote two books (one tied to the 50th anniversary of Gilligan) based on her character. She toured in live theater and dinner theater for years drawing audiences who came to see Mary Ann, no matter what play or character she was doing.
She found success in Hollywood starring in over 150 TV shows, and 7 motion pictures, including Winterhawk (which she also narrated), The Town That Dreaded Sundown (with Andrew Prine), Super Sucker (with Jeff Daniels), The New Interns, It’s Our Time, and most recently,.
“She has starred in 60+ theatrical productions by playwrights such as Noel Coward and Neil Simon, as well as the National Tours of Chapter Two and They’re Playing Our Song,” a 2019 press release heralded. “Favorite productions in which she has performed include Fatal Attraction with Ken Howard, The Odd Couple with Marcia Wallace, The Allergist’s Wife, The Vagina Monologues, and now Steel Magnolias (Ouiser). Ms. Wells starred as Gingy in Love, Loss and What I Wore (by Nora and Delia Ephron) in New York, Chicago, Delaware, Scottsdale, and San Jose.”
She produced two Movies of the Week to CBS: Surviving Gilligan’s Island and Return to the Bat Cave with Adam West. She is author of What Would Mary Ann Do? Written to tie in with the 50th Anniversary of Gilligan’s Island. In recent years she had been in two web series, Still On That Freakin’ Island and Life Interrupted.
Wells was a philanthropist in real life, the moving force behind the Terry Lee Wells Foundation, which helped girls and women in need, and operated a museum in Nevada. She had a business, Wishing Wells Collections, which made and sold clothes for the handicapped. She founded the Idaho Film and Television Institute, a non-profit that helped with education, technical training and economic development among many efforts. She was honored with the Elephant Sanctuary Trumpeting Award for assisting an Elephant Sanctuary; and ran the Film Actors Boot Camp for in Idaho.
She suffered through hard times in recent years and in 2018 did a Go Fund Me campaign which provided her almost $200,000 in donations from her adoring public.
There have been reports that Wells had a special deal on Gilligan which allowed her to share in residuals, because her agent at the time was her husband. She has said that was untrue and the fact checking website Snopes also rated it as “false.”
In a 2016 interview with Forbes, Wells said the show was a hit, but she did not share in that bonanza: “A misconception is that we must be wealthy, rolling in the dough, because we got residuals. We didn’t really get a dime. I think my salary - of course, I was low on the totem pole, Ginger [Tina Louise] and Thurston [Jim Backus] got more - was $750 a week. Sherwood Schwartz, our producer, reportedly made $90 million on the reruns alone!”
Wells never lamented not sharing in the shows lucrative back-end profits, she told Forbes: “The series was very good for me, for all of us who were there, because we’re known worldwide. And Mary Ann is loved all over the world. It’s amazing.”
The blending of Wells and Mary Ann may have typecast the actress, but she was proud to have played the part her entire life.
“There is more to Dawn Wells than Mary Ann. I’m deeper, smarter, more ambitious, funnier,” she told Forbes. “I think if you meet me for 15 minutes, there is nothing you won’t know: what you see is what you get! I love to play roles where I’m the bitch or a hooker, but the real Dawn Wells is closer to Mary Ann.”
Now in endless re-runs, just as Lucille Ball is our Lucy, Wells is our Mary Ann, and we can love her for that forever.