(Part Two of a Two Part Series by Kevin Renick)
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.
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?
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?
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!
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: 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!
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: 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: 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: 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..
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.