…AND THE REST: THE DAWN WELLS INTERVIEW

(Part Two of a Two Part Series by Kevin Renick)

Dawn Wells, circa 2014 (publicity photo)

Dawn Wells, circa 2014 (publicity photo)

The following interview with Ms Wells was conducted by telephone in Fall 2015 during one of her many publicity jaunts for her latest book, WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO?: A GUIDE TO LIFE. Throughout the chat, Dawn was charming, revealing, appreciative and fun, just the traits you would expect from the gal who created the iconic Mary Ann Summers character on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. Dawn is seldom wanting for new projects… she’s an actress in multiple mediums, an author, a designer, a brilliant marketer, in demand for special appearances constantly and, as she says, kind of an “adventurer.” She appreciated the essay I wrote about her, and we talked quite a bit about the GILLIGAN days, as well as plenty of other topics.

THE MULE: Hi Dawn. Pleasure to talk to you again! We met some years before in Columbia.

DAWN: Oh, it was probably the Children’s Miracle Network thing?

THE MULE: Yes, indeed. And you were just delightful then, also.

DAWN: Well, what you wrote about me was so lovely. As a fan, you could see the depth of that character and it was really sweet, all the things you said.

THE MULE: I just felt very strongly that you were the heart of the show. You held everything together amidst plotlines that were often preposterous. Not sure anyone else could have done that.

DAWN: That’s the reason that Mary Ann has sustained for so long. And she really has. There are no Mary Ann’s today.

THE MULE: Well, one reason I knew I was onto something with my premise is because I spoke to some female friends about the show and its longevity. And to a one, they said you were their favorite character. Maybe that isn’t so surprising.

DAWN: I’d have been their friend!

THE MULE: Right. Well, let’s talk a bit about your new book, WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO?. What led you to the writing of this book?

WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? A GUIDE TO LIFE (TAYLOR TRADE PUBLISHING, 2014)

WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? A GUIDE TO LIFE (TAYLOR TRADE PUBLISHING, 2014)

DAWN: It was the fans! 80% of the men I meet say, “I married a Mary Ann.” Or, “Mary Ann would have been my partner.” You’d have to have been pretty sophisticated to say that as a young man. The grownups say that they married Mary Ann, and they have their kids with them. Which made me think, there is something to this character that still resonates. Then I went into, Why? What is it about her? As funny as it may seem, I was raised by a Mary Ann mother. In Reno, Nevada. Where there’s legal prostitution! As far away from Kansas as you can be! But it was the morality, the manners, the work ethic, that my mother raised me with. And no matter where you are, it doesn’t make any difference. It was my mother’s influence on me. And I was talking to someone recently, I asked, “Why didn’t I run away? Or go out and drink with my buddies or something like that, like the kids are doing today?” And it’s because I respected my mother. And nobody can teach respect. My parents were divorced. And that’s what I talk about in the book. I had two families that loved me. My mother and father… I never heard a negative word from either of them about each other. My dad would say, “I think your mother needs a washing machine… what do you think?” And then she would ask me something. Raising me was the emphasis in their relationship. And again, that depends on the parents. You know, if you come from a bitter home, you’re listening to what’s around you. And I never had any of that. I really was raised to be a “Mary Ann” and there’s something to be said for that. Today, everybody’s in their room with their computer, nobody knows who they’re talking to or what they’re saying. Nobody has dinner together much anymore. And this bullying? I mean, we had a bunch of kids that I’m sure you’d consider the kids you’d bully maybe. Someone wouldn’t be very good at something but… we loved him anyway. We’ve sort of lost that. I thought this book would be maybe for a mom or a dad or a grandma, to sit down with their kids and read it.

THE MULE: That’s all beautifully expressed, Dawn. I think you’ve really hit on some big things there. You’ve been traveling a lot, and I know you’ve appeared in bookstores and on talk shows and stuff. What has been the response – overall – of people, both the fans and the people who interview you?

DAWN: It’s all positive. I don’t think I have ever had a negative interview.

THE MULE: Really?

DAWN: No, I don’t think so. Well maybe, uh, I don’t know. I did an interview on the Howard Stern show years ago.

THE MULE: Oh, no!

DAWN: I always kind of trusted… and he said we’re gonna do it. And I said okay. Well, it was the most embarrassing thing in the whole world. They did a skit where the Skipper had died and (unintelligible), and Mrs. Howell was pregnant and was played by a guy with a hairy chest. Bob (Denver) and I looked at each other like, Do we walk off or do we continue? But then years later, Howard Stern asked me to be on his radio show, and I said to my PR guy yeah, let me sit down with him for an hour. And I turned him around completely. We got through all of the nonsense right at the beginning. And we ended up talking about the difference between female education and male education in school. And the nitty gritty of who Mary Ann is, which we all know…

THE MULE: Lordy, I’d be terrified to think of the kind of stuff Howard Stern COULD have asked you. (we both laugh) Can you relate an incident or two about fan enthusiasm over the years that stood out? Something more than just, “Oh, you were my favorite character.” Where it maybe surprised you in some way.

DAWN: Well, I tend to get a lot of the same reactions. Some 45-year-old guy will come up, and he’ll bring his 10-year-old daughter. And he wants her to listen to Mary Ann, I think. And they’re not gonna be embarrassed by what I would do. I’m not bra-less, wearing a low-cut gown. So I think they have this trust in what I would say… I mean, I’ve had proposals. Uh, well I did have a cute little thing happen with Nick Nolte. I was doing a show for Australia called “The Castaway Correspondent”. I was interviewing all the people in the movies and everything. And the only person who told me they liked Ginger better than Mary Ann was Robin Williams. (laughs) But Nick Nolte said, “Oh my gosh, you got me through puberty in the nicest of ways!”

THE MULE: That’s a pretty good compliment! In my essay about you, I talked about the fact that you were probably the most popular character on GILLIGAN, that both males and females like you the same, which is amazing. How do you put this in perspective, that you got the most fan mail on the show and continued to be the most popular character years after?

The cast of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Alan Hale Junior, Bob Denver, Dawn Wells, Tina Louise, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer) (publicity photo)

The cast of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Alan Hale Junior, Bob Denver, Dawn Wells, Tina Louise, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer) (publicity photo)

DAWN: I really don’t think I was the most popular… I’m sure it would be Gilligan, maybe, or the Skipper. But, I think Mary Ann was relatable. And for you, as a young person growing up watching the show, Ginger was too much! You have to be pretty sophisticated. And Mrs. Howell could have been your grandmother. I think you identified with me because I’d have been your buddy! I’d have been your buddy if I had gone to school with you and you were a guy. I don’t mean to be too modest, but I don’t think it had anything to do with ME. I just think Sherwood Schwartz put these seven people together and took seven personalities… and I think Mary Ann was… I don’t think I carried the show, but she was the center of making everyone pitch in. Y’know, let’s not bully you and let’s get the Skipper on a diet, and make Mister Howell be a little nicer to Mrs. Howell. And I don’t know that it was really in the writing. There were no messages. I think it was the relationships between us all. And there was no jealousy between Mary Ann and Ginger at all!

THE MULE: That’s interesting… that comes up a lot, people wondering about the relationship between you two.

DAWN: I used to think (regarding Tina Louise), gosh, you’re so glamorous. I don’t know, I never had a leopard outfit on before, and I kissed Gilligan and I kissed the Professor and I thought, oh boy, I get to be a girl now. (laughs)

THE MULE: Well, you brought it up, that episode where you played Ginger… what else do you remember about that one? It’s among the most popular with fans, I think. And it showed off your acting chops.

DAWN: Well, she was very sweet, cause she does that little Marilyn Monroe thing with her mouth. That kind of cute little thing… So I’d say, “Now say that again,” so I could kind of imitate her. And I tried to do that. There’s always a Ginger and Mary Ann question, so you’d assume there would be a competition between us. But Ginger… had never had a Thanksgiving dinner! And she said to me… I’m a pretty good cook and my mother is, too… and she said to me, I don’t know if it was our second or third year, but she said, “Would you mind teaching me how to make a Thanksgiving dinner?” And I said “I’d love that!” So she came to my house, and she sat on a stool with a pencil and paper, and my mother did all the shopping. We chopped all the onions and the celery… and she sat there and took notes. And I don’t know if she ever did it. Eight or nine years later, maybe even later, because she had a daughter by that point. And I met Caprice (Crane, Ms Louise’s daughter). And Caprice said to me, “You know how much I love that story about Thanksgiving, how you taught her how to do it?” And I would not have thought Tina would have embraced it that much!

Tina Louise and Dawn Wells in GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (video still)

Tina Louise and Dawn Wells in GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (video still)

THE MULE: That’s a great story! So, there wasn’t any rivalry between you and Tina on the show? Was that just a made-up thing from the fans?

DAWN: I think the fans, at a certain point, decided they had to make a choice, which was silly. Tina was a big movie star. I had just been in the business a couple of years. She’d done GOD’S LITTLE ACRE with Rock Hudson and she’d been on Broadway. She was a beauty. I remember, we started wearing false eyelashes and Tina ordered them from New York. They were $25 a pair. And they were mink. Well, I didn’t know anything about things like that! I watched her… she was very conscious of only wanting to be photographed from the left side. She was very conscious of how she looked best and everything. And I kind of learned a lot from that! She had the experience, I didn’t.

THE MULE: Did you ever get to have input about Mary Ann’s dialogue or story lines on the show?

DAWN: No. No. I don’t think anybody did… Gilligan might have, a little. But we had good writers, and you all had to just stick to the ridiculous plots. I just did what they told me to do, and read the lines.

THE MULE: There’s a particular episode different friends have mentioned, the one where you did a musical version of HAMLET, which was kind of surreal. What do you remember about that one?

DAWN: Oh, yeah. I didn’t really realize until a few years ago, Phil Silvers was our guest star, and I didn’t realize he helped finance the pilot! Sherwood Schwartz and Gladysya Productions. Not until about six months ago did I realize that Gladysya was Phil Silvers! But no, that was fun. That was quite extensive, what they did with the costumes and everything for that one.

THE MULE: I have a friend who, to this day, if I bring up that episode, she’ll break into one of the songs. They stick in your mind!

DAWN: (singing one of the tunes herself) “Neither a borrower nor a lender be!”

THE MULE: Well, you certainly created something very iconic. No doubt about it. So many memorable episodes. What about you and the other cast members? I know you got along really well with Russell Johnson. I loved you two together. You had great chemistry.

Dawn Wells with Russell Johnson and Bob Denver (uncredited photo)

Dawn Wells with Russell Johnson and Bob Denver (uncredited photo)

DAWN: I think we did, too. And we always laughed in that first year about ” …and the rest” (the theme song for the show the first year said ” …and the rest” instead of crediting Wells and Johnson). We’d send each other cards saying “Love, the Rest” for Christmas and birthdays, stuff like that. Bob (Denver) was very private. Very private. He had a lot of children, and he’d come in looking exhausted. There was a childlike soul in Bob. I was one of the few people he allowed in his home. Um, allowed is not the right word. Alan (Hale) was the same size as my dad. So, every time Alan hugged me, he picked me up half off the floor. So there was this big robust, jovial human being there. And he was a good cook. And Natalie (Schafer) and I were very close, especially in later years. I was the least close, probably, to Jim (Backus). I think Jim and Tina were very close, I think they both had that kind of movie star/Hollywood life, which I never did. But Natalie didn’t have any children, and towards the end she confided a lot of things to me. We really were a tight knit cast, though, and I think that shows. I think the charm of the show was that you could kind of tell we all liked each other.

THE MULE: Yes, I agree. There had to be a reason why the show was so popular and never went off the air. Some people don’t realize that, that it has always been on the air, somewhere. People of a certain age still view it with such love and fondness. What’s it like to be part of something so iconic, that people feel such nostalgia for now?

DAWN: You know, it translates easily, into all these other languages. Because you don’t really have to understand any PLOT particularly. And I can’t go anywhere in the world without being recognized. My favorite story… I’m in the Solomon Islands… (she says something about a knee replacement) I’m not an athlete but, I’m an adventurer. Stephens College… went with some of my Stephens College friends to Rwanda, we climbed up to see the gorillas. And I went with five other Stephens women to the Solomon Islands, where no white women have ever been. There was no running water, and no electricity. We had a photographer who had married a Solomon Island girl, so he said, “I’ll take you around.” And, as we canoed up to an island, the chief – his family had been chief for nine generations. And they were all in huts, up on stilts. No running water, no electricity. And he had a little greeting for us. So these young kids did a little dance and as we canoed up to the island, the chief’s wife looked at me and said “I know you.” And I went “WHAT? What are you talking about?” She said “I was on the island of Honiara (capital of the Solomon Islands), in 1979, going to nursing school. And I used to come home and watch you in black and white.” In the middle of the Pacific Ocean!

THE MULE: Oh, I can’t believe it. You must have absolutely fallen over!

DAWN: I almost dropped dead! And then the other thing was, we were probably in production for four or five weeks and Sherwood came in with the Coast Guard. Six or seven big mucky-mucks from the Coast Guard. And we stopped filming for a minute or so. And he said “The Coast Guard has something to say to you all.” And I don’t know what the ranks are in the Coast Guard, but the guy said, “We have received several telegrams saying there are seven people stranded in the Pacific Ocean. Why can’t you find them?” Some people believe everything!

Dawn Wells as the giant's maid in the GILLIGAN'S ISLAND episode, V For Vitamins (video still)

Dawn Wells as the giant’s maid in the GILLIGAN’S ISLAND episode, V For Vitamins (video still)

THE MULE: Amazing, truly. Even though the show was a huge hit in syndication, you guys didn’t really get to share in the profits at all, right?

DAWN: Not a dime. I was just talking to Bob Denver’s wife recently and she said, “It just makes me so angry.” We’ve never been off the air, and in how many languages around the world. And we haven’t had one nickel from it! Sherwood Schwartz, I was told, made $90 million on the reruns of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND alone. He could have split it between the seven of us, maybe given us a million, but nope.

THE MULE: And there’s no lawyer out there clever enough to remedy the situation now, maybe?

DAWN: No, cause a lot of other shows have tried that, like F TROOP and stuff like that. But it’s been tried. And that was the contract! That’s what it was. And Jim Backus used to get so angry, like “Hey, you took the part! You knew there weren’t any things along that line.” And how do you go back? You can’t be bitter, that’s stupid. We wouldn’t be known for who we were… so that’s a plus.

THE MULE: Did I read somewhere that a pair of your shorts from the show will be in the Smithsonian?

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann in that classic two-piece outfit (video still)

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann in that classic two-piece outfit (video still)

DAWN: They’ve asked me. They want them. And I don’t know whether to do that. I have a family foundation and we have funded a children’s museum in Reno… we are tied to the Smithsonian. So I was going to the Smithsonian a couple of years ago and he was pulling out all the costumes from THE WIZARD OF OZ, and they’re all in drawers! I mean, they come out once in a while and display them, but… I don’t know that I want my shorts to be in drawers! I think maybe some fan would rather have them. I still have them, so I don’t know what I’m going to do.

THE MULE: Well, they’re famous! Your shorts, as I mentioned in my essay, came years before the Catherine Bach “daisy dukes” from the DUKES OF HAZZARD, which got so much attention. So, I don’t think you got enough credit!

DAWN: I had to cover my navel, though. I helped design them… I tried to make my legs look longer by making them go up on the sides, and my torso looked longer so I dipped it down on the side but I still had to have that little rise in front so you wouldn’t see my navel!

THE MULE: Still a conversation piece all these years later! Can you just mention a couple of your favorite theatre roles through the years? I know you were in THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT. I think I told you that my brother Kyle produced the first version of STEEL MAGNOLIAS in New York, a show you were in elsewhere.

Dawn Wells in THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, circa 1969 (publicity still)

Dawn Wells in THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, circa 1969 (publicity still)

DAWN: I was not in the New York production, but boy, I love that play. I played Ouiser.(in the Judson Theatre Company production in North Carolina). I did LION IN WINTER. I’m doing a play in Jacksonville, and I’ve been looking at some other things. I just asked the Dramatists Workshop if they ever thought of doing SLEUTH with two women. It took us a long time to get two women to do THE ODD COUPLE. I’m always challenged. I don’t know, THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT was about as far from Mary Ann as you could be. However, I gave her the heart of gold. I made her a nice person. I’m always up for a challenge. I’m doing LOVE, LOSS AND WHAT I WORE again in Laguna Beach. I’ve had some funny things happen. I was doing OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT at the Barn Dinner Theatre in Dallas, and we had to run down the aisle to the dressing rooms to change clothes. And some guy grabbed me around the thigh, and put me on his lap! (laughing) And of course, it’s black out… y’know, you gotta be changing costumes, and I’m trying to get his hands off me! It was quite an experience.

THE MULE: Wow, that’s a good one. And you’ve also done a fair number of movies… which one was the best experience for you?

DAWN: WINTERHAWK. Because it was so incredibly beautiful, and I had been working with such professional character actors. And we were really in the snow. I mean, I had on pantyhose over my long underwear, and I was bareback on the horse, trying to go up the Rocky Mountains. And my little horse had just a little tuft of his mane. And we started up the hill and my pantyhose would slide back towards the tail. And I tried to grab ahold of his mane. And about a week into it, I said to the director, “Charlie! All the Indians have saddles under their blankets. Why can’t I have a saddle?” He said “It’s too late now, I put ya there without one.” But you really got to have that feeling… and Michael Dante was a wonderful actor in the role… I think that was my favorite. (She also mentions the horror movie THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, which was based on a true story and conjured suspense for both the cast and viewers)

THE MULE: Anything else you are working on now that you’d like to mention?

Dawn Wells (uncredited photo)

Dawn Wells (uncredited photo)

DAWN: I’ve been looking at some plays that I could do, now that I’m more mature. I could do GIN GAME and a few things like that. I’m also in the midst of a cookbook. And, I’ve been asked to do a radio show. And I’d really, really like a radio show, so I am contemplating that… what could be my theme, what could I talk about? I like fans that call in, and having conversations. We’ll be talking seriously about that.

THE MULE: (we talk a little about growing older, and I relate the story of my song “Up In the Air” for the George Clooney movie of the same name, and how I have harbored different impulses myself.)

DAWN: See, isn’t that wonderful. That’s what I always say, you know, “why give up?” Everybody has something to offer in this world, you just gotta do something about it!”

THE MULE: Well Dawn, you have managed to create such good will and a lasting impact from what could have been a less substantial role, and I just admire that so much. Any look at the internet shows how much fans love you. And you’ve managed to stay so positive and accessible through the years. Not every star does.

DAWN: It’s not very hard to be loved. (laughs) I certainly appreciate the admiration. I mean, If you were a secretary somewhere, and somebody was saying, “You did the best job, or you wrote the best blah blah blah,” you’d sort of feel flattered. I do feel flattered, but I also feel a connection. I guess, you know, when you find that many people that… fathers with kids, and passing that down, there must be something connecting us somehow. And I love people. maybe it’s the way I was raised. I don’t know. I wouldn’t change my life.

THE MULE: You preserved something on that show for all time, creating such a lovable character. Something you did transcended the limits of a silly half-hour television show, that’s for sure.

DAWN: Well I wonder, was it the dialogue? Was it my presenting the dialogue? Was it just because I was cast as that character? I don’t know. You can’t put your finger on it..

Two of our favorite things, Dawn Wells and the Monkeemobile (uncredited photo)

Two of our favorite things, Dawn Wells and the Monkeemobile (uncredited photo)

Dawn Wells is currently appearing at the Fanboy Expo in Nashville, Tennessee through May 15. Her book WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? is available in bookstores and at Dawn’s website now. You can also keep up-to-date with her upcoming appearances at the site. GILLIGAN’S ISLAND continues its syndication run everywhere, and is probably a popular show on distant planets in outer space by now.


DAWN WELLS: A TRIBUTE TO THE ENDURING SWEETHEART FROM, Y’KNOW, THAT ’60S SHOW

(Part One of a Two Part Series by KEVIN RENICK)

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann Summers in GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (video still)

Dawn Wells as Mary Ann Summers in GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (video still)

Ginger or Mary Ann? It’s a simple question featuring the names of two girls, and the debate behind it, along with all kinds of underlying implications, not only continues to this day but represents an utterly singular phenomenon in pop culture. The question refers, of course, to the two comely actresses who held baby boomers in their pulchritudinous grip on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, a sitcom about a “three-hour tour” in the Pacific that essentially never left the air after its three-year run came to an end in 1967. Ginger was Ginger Grant, played by Tina Louise; the character was a movie star and glamour girl patterned more than a little after Marilyn Monroe. Mary Ann (Summers) was portrayed by Dawn Wells as the definitive “girl next door” type: Sweet, approachable and down to Earth. Why did this question about the two iconic portrayals gain such traction? Why are there multiple articles about it on the net, including a hilarious point/counterpoint essay on the RetroCrush web site that goes into great detail about why EACH lady deserves to win the argument? What could be so significant about a mere question of preference for certain kinds of women that it caused almost the entire male population of television viewers to immediately take a stand, bonding with those who agreed with their choice and driven to rag on those who didn’t? There may be more intriguing or important questions out there when it comes to pop culture history, but I can’t think of another show or even ANY other entertainment medium that gave rise to such an enduring debate about two women. That deserves some recognition, for sure, in a culture that loves polls and “hall of fame” type debates.

So then, Ginger or Mary Ann? Well, I am proud to say I’ve always been completely, totally in the Mary Ann camp. As a baby boomer, GILLIGAN’S ISLAND was one of the shows I never missed growing up; it was an essential part of my childhood. Dawn Wells was the first actress I ever developed a crush on; it was a rather immediate thing, even in the first season of the show when it was in black and white. I’ve run into many guys of a certain age that said the same thing. The easygoing charm and friendliness of Wells’ Mary Ann was arguably the heart of a sitcom that stuffier critics would often ridicule because of the absurd plots. Few of us ever analyzed the plots; we just loved the good fun of the show, the chemistry of the cast, and the pleasure of watching our favorite characters do their thing in each subsequent episode. For me, that meant Mary Ann, followed by Russell Johnson’s charismatic and brilliant Professor (only in one episode did we learn that his actual name was Roy Hinkley), and then poor besotten Bob Denver as Gilligan. There was a familiarity about GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and especially watching it in endless reruns that kept you tied to a vision of simpler, happier times. The castaways became like an extended family. It may have been just an innocuous sitcom, but Dawn Wells, in particular, did something worth examining on the show – she created a female character so fetching, so warm and caring, and so REAL, that millions of fans fell in love with her. Quite early on, the fan mail coffers started filling up more for Dawn than any of her co-stars, and once the “Ginger vs. Mary Ann” debate started in earnest, Dawn almost always came out ahead (with the arguable exception perhaps being polls that appeared in a few men’s magazines). You can find polls and “lists of faves” all over the internet, but we’ll just mention one from the entertainment site, imdb.com. When the question was put to a vote (even asking for other preferences in TV gals; it was phrased as “Ginger or Mary Ann or… “), Mary Ann was the solid winner out of 3200+ respondents, with 652 votes. Barbara Eden of I DREAM OF JEANNIE, not dissimilar in her overall aesthetic, came in second place, with 418 votes. Where was Ginger? Way down in 6th place, with 218 votes.

GINGER OR MARY ANN? (Dawn Wells and Tina Louise... the debate continues) (video still)

GINGER OR MARY ANN? (Dawn Wells and Tina Louise… the debate continues) (video still)

Let’s face it, we like our stars, and we like falling in love with characters from TV shows and movies. It’s part of the escapism that’s really quite necessary to get through life. Dawn Wells became one of the true touchstones on television to embody the concept of “the girl next door.” How she portrayed the endearing Kansas farm girl Mary Ann was to bring her huge, lasting fame and launch a million fantasies and discussions about “desirability” that would utterly transcend producer Sherwood Schwartz’s initial hopes for his unpretentious little TV show. These things can’t be planned or predicted. Audiences do their own thing (especially so in the pre-internet age), and the march of time ultimately determines who wins the popularity contests. Countless actresses earned male admiration and substantial fan bases through the years, but it takes a special combination of circumstances to make someone an icon, a hall of famer, a list topper. The kind of star fans will flock to every appearance for, or write impassioned letters to, year after year after year. Dawn Wells somehow made ALL of that happen, on a TV show that critics thought would fail right away and that was never considered a classic. So, let’s take a look at how she did it, and celebrate a lovely, vibrant woman who has been able to enjoy the fruits of her achievement for many years now.

MARY ANN, THE APPROACHABLE “FRIEND”

It’s not a put-down to say that almost everyone on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND was a bit of a caricature or exaggeration. Bob Denver’s Gilligan, though well-meaning, was always messing things up and preventing rescues; NO ONE would screw up that much in real life. The Skipper, played by Alan Hale Junior, was a commanding if often blustery presence, and spent an inordinate amount of time reacting to Gilligan’s screw-ups. The Professor made too many improbable creations out of crude elements on the island and came up with all sorts of far-flung solutions to problems faced by the castaways. There was likely not much resemblance to any real life scenarios in what he did on that island week after week, but let’s acknowledge just how charismatic and energetic Russell Johnson’s performance was; he deserved more credit than he got. How patently bizarre that the first season’s theme song said “and the rest” instead of naming “the professor and Mary Ann,” something corrected in subsequent seasons. It might’ve made more sense if the lyric said “and the BEST,” since Wells and Johnson were arguably just that. Continuing, though… Ginger? Way too much of a stereotypical “glamorous actress” type, with, again, too many Marilyn Monroe-isms, even if Tina Louise was a game and devoted actress with the part she was given. The Howells? Silly, exaggerated rich people caricatures, though you can hardly fault the quirky and enjoyable acting of Jim Backus and Natalie Schaefer.

Dawn Wells in leopard skin dress, from the GILLIGAN'S ISLAND episode, "The Second Ginger Grant" (video still)

Dawn Wells in leopard skin dress, from the GILLIGAN’S ISLAND episode, “The Second Ginger Grant” (video still)

That brings us to Dawn Wells. Not only was she a totally believable character, with her earnest attempts to help her fellow castaways figure things out and her easygoing charm, she transcended the limitations of the show in almost every way by acting and talking like someone you know or would WANT to know. She was a friend to all. She was tender and caring. She was sometimes motherly, sometimes sweetly innocent, sometimes vulnerable in the most beguiling of ways. I truly think Mary Ann was the genuine heart of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND – the character who provided the most balance and real-life levity. She tended to dole out the lion’s share of reassurance and hope. Her good nature and steadfast loyalty provided forward momentum for a show based on a wacky premise. And emotionally, Mary Ann responded believably to a wide range of situations, her eyes sparkling with vitality and eager curiosity, befuddlement or straightforward concern and empathy. Dawn Wells was a fine actress to accomplish all this; if she was perhaps playing a version of herself, well, it had to take amazing discipline and yes, acting chops, to maintain that level of sweet, affable charm throughout the preposterous scenarios the castaways had to endure. And let’s also acknowledge some of the sassy, sexy moments Dawn gave us on the show. Her physical beauty may have been less showcased, or less “in your face” than Tina Louise’s, but that only made it more distinctive and subtly mesmerizing at times. Who could forget the episode where the girls create a singing group called the Honeybees to compete against fictional pop stars the Mosquitos? One of those “honeybees” generates more BUZZ than the others, and you can guess who it is. Or how about the episode where Mary Ann gets knocked unconscious and wakes up thinking she is Ginger? It’s quite a kick watching Mary Ann wear all her rival’s showy outfits. And there’s the memorable “beauty contest” episode, where the all-knowing Professor promotes Mary Ann as his candidate for “most beautiful woman on the island,” priming her in the important art of showcasing her beauty and talent in different areas. (Professor and Mary Ann ‘shippers must’ve delighted in this scenario.) For the record, Mary Ann’s leggy tap-dancing display would’ve been the most memorable thing in that contest were it not for the glue placed on stage by rivals’ supporters. Every fan can name their favorite episodes and moments, but for me, what Dawn Wells brought to the show was crucial, game-changing. I’d be willing to bet that if you went out and asked a bunch of GI fans who was the heart of the show, the majority of them would probably say Dawn Wells. That says a great deal about a show that started out with such a simple, oft-ridiculed premise.

THOSE LEGS, THOSE LEGS!

GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

Here’s a fun fact that is likely only meaningful to male viewers, but for a show that made such a big deal out of having a sex symbol/glamorous actress in the cast, it’s the sweet girl next door who eventually earned a permanent place in the “Legs Hall of Fame” (especially once the internet came along and allowed for endless scrutiny and analysis of, well, every star EVER). Between Sherwood Schwartz’s amiable open-mindedness and Dawn Wells’ evident desire to set herself apart from Tina Louise, the decision was made early on to feature Dawn in the shortest shorts ever to appear on a TV show at the time. They wouldn’t let her show her navel due to absurd censorship standards then in existence, but boy, they let her show her legs, in tiny shorts cut high on the thigh. I would posit that it was the combination of Mary Ann’s sweet innocence and her continual display of leggy beauty that put her over the top with male viewers. These days we don’t think that much about a star merely wearing “hot pants” or other skimpy outfits on their show. It’s commonplace. But in the mid-60s, this was groundbreaking stuff. If I’m not mistaken, a pair of Dawn Wells’ shorts is even headed for the Smithsonian. Sure, she also wore that omnipresent gingham dress and a handful of far more conservative outfits, but it’s the shorts that made the biggest impression with fans. And there were other leg-baring outfits such as the maid uniform she wore in the “Gilligan and the Beanstalk” episode and the short yellow dress from the above mentioned beauty contest, an outfit that she donned again in the “radioactive vegetables” episode. Remember that one? When the Professor tells everyone they need to keep walking and exercising to offset the negative effects of eating radioactive crops, Dawn starts pacing around in that hard-to-ignore outfit. At one point, she complains to the Skipper that she’s too tired and can’t keep walking. “I haven’t got your legs!” she complains. “It’s a good thing you don’t, Mary Ann, or you wouldn’t be able to fit into those shorts,” the Skipper slyly replies. That was one of the few times that Mary Ann’s attire was even acknowledged on the show. But, let it be said that, through the wonders of syndication and endless repeats, hardcore fans got to know every outfit of Mary Ann’s. Who could forget the short little white number she only wore in two or three episodes, including the infamous “vampire” episode (early syndication runs angered some fans by cutting various scenes to accommodate more commercials; one such scene featured Mary Ann and Ginger fighting off a bat until the Professor comes to the rescue. Thankfully, the DVDs and later syndication runs restored the scene). That girly-style frock was also worn by Dawn in the “Tongo, the Ape Man” episode that featured actor Denny Miller as an actor preparing for his role as, well, an ape man. So, yeah, Dawn had legs, and she knew how to use ‘em. If we’re talking about the history of women on television, and the evolution of the medium in showcasing female beauty, Dawn Wells pretty much deserves an entire chapter. Giggle all you want, but she wore the shorts noticed ’round the world. Anything that’s a first has relevance and deserves to be mentioned, and appreciated. Ms. Wells gave us a first on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. With freshness, ease and undeniable sex appeal. Take THAT, Ginger!

THIS IS HOW A STAR SHINES!

STEEL MAGNOLIAS featuring Dawn Wells (theater card for Judson Theatre's 2014 production)

STEEL MAGNOLIAS featuring Dawn Wells (theater card for Judson Theatre’s 2014 production)

The annals of stardom are littered with the cases of performers who couldn’t handle their fame, stars who became bitter due to typecasting, or who succumbed to substance abuse or other destructive behavior. Rare is the star, especially one who rose to fame on a single show or movie, that consistently handles their fame with grace and puts it to good use. Of all the “castaways” from GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, Dawn Wells seemed most grateful for her success and most determined to make it count. Professionally, she did a ton of theatre (THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT and STEEL MAGNOLIAS were among her credits in that realm), and acted in various – mostly low-budget – films such as WINTERHAWK, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, RETURN TO BOGGY CREEK, SUPER SUCKER and CYBER MELTDOWN, as well as three GILLIGAN’S ISLAND reunion movies for television, the weirdest of which was THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS ON GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, actually quite entertaining if you’ve had a few drinks. Dawn has written two books: MARY ANN’S GILLIGAN’S ISLAND COOKBOOK, and the new WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? A GUIDE TO LIFE, which she has been promoting with bookstore and media appearances for the past year or more. In Idaho, Dawn runs Wishing Wells Collections, an organization that makes clothing for individuals with limited mobility. She also helps her pal, Dreama Denver (Bob Denver’s wife), with the Denver Foundation charity.

Dawn Wells at a 2014 book signing for WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? (photo credit: MICHAEL TULLBERG/GETTY IMAGES)

Dawn Wells at a 2014 book signing for WHAT WOULD MARY ANN DO? (photo credit: MICHAEL TULLBERG/GETTY IMAGES)

But you can read her career stats anywhere on the web. The more important thing to say about Dawn is that she has been fan-friendly to a fault. She has never expressed resentment or even mixed feelings about her GILLIGAN stint; instead, she’s talked about those years with gratitude and the kind of intuitive understanding seemingly beyond the ability of some stars. Dawn appreciates her fans and talks enthusiastically about meeting them all over the world (even relating the tale of a native on a remote island—imagine THAT—recognizing the actress when she was vacationing). She acknowledges the tons of fan mail she gets and answers a good deal of it. She makes autographed photos and other merchandise available on her own web site for modest prices. And, in interview after interview, the divine Ms W talks about the fun she had on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, the reasons why Mary Ann was so popular, and how grateful she was for the whole experience. She even talks about the significance of her shorts with humor and verve. I’ve met quite a few people over the years who were Dawn Wells fans and had the privilege of meeting her at some point. To a person, they state how kind and friendly she was and how appreciative of anything they shared about their fondness for her portrayal of Mary Ann. THAT’S a star. Dawn Wells may not have fully escaped the shadow of GI in terms of subsequent work in the entertainment business, but she has demonstrated, consistently, that she’s at peace with her fame from the show, continuing to work in different media through the years, charming reporters and media types any time she does an interview, and essentially using her fame to keep moving forward while giving fans an ongoing opportunity to connect with her and express their appreciation for what she did on “that show.” Honestly, there just aren’t that many stars of cult TV shows or movies who have so consistently conducted themselves with class and grace, and so openly expressed appreciation for their career path, even if tied to a show with less than stellar critical praise. It’s pretty damn impressive. Dawn Wells could give seminars to fellow celebrities on how to handle fame with true style. And it’s pretty magical how fans seem to light up wherever she goes. She knows that she made an impact with her portrayal of Mary Ann Summers. And she makes it truly FUN to be a fan. That is not necessarily the norm in the entertainment business…

The cast of GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer, Bob Denver, Tina Louise, Alan Hale Junior, Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

The cast of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (Russell Johnson, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer, Bob Denver, Tina Louise, Alan Hale Junior, Dawn Wells) (publicity photo)

It’s strangely ironic that Dawn Wells and Tina Louise are the only surviving members of the GILLIGAN cast. With Russell Johnson’s death last year, the two rival actresses are the only ones left to talk about those halcyon ’60s television adventures, and Tina sure ain’t talkin’ much. In fact, she often sounds indignant and embarrassed when the subject of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND comes up. But to the pleasure of many, Dawn IS talking. She surfaces regularly when she has a project to promote, continues to act, and keeps providing plenty of opportunities for fans to enjoy images of the Mary Ann character and fresh insights into the cast and the show. Dawn could’ve been like so many other stars and simply shunned her past. But even into the latter years of her career, she has proved she is SPECIAL. She’s just one of those strong, confident, charming stars that handles it well. She has a good life because of GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, and it hasn’t stopped her from doing a damn thing. Nope, Ms Wells is on the move, and her fans will follow her anywhere.

Mary Ann or Ginger? Personally I think it’s no contest. When you grow up loving a star, you want to believe they are genuine, caring, accessible and able to talk about their fame in a way that makes you glad you contributed to it. Dawn Wells does all that and more. She’s assured a permanent spot in the “America’s Sweetheart Hall of Fame.” Read her book. Watch those old episodes of GILLIGAN. Marvel at how composed and genuine she is when interviewed or chatting with fans. This is a gal more than worthy of admiration and boomer fan-ship. Just sit right back and you’ll hear her tales. She’s not just “the rest” (thankfully, Bob Denver helped rectify that absurdity). She’s genuinely the BEST, the girl who, in whatever capacity she affected you, was destined never to leave your memory. We all need a little Mary Ann in our lives.