Dawn Wells with author Herbie J Pilato
"By the dawn's early light…"
How fitting that such a musical patriotic pledge of allegiance would include even the slightest reference to the first name of an actress who for decades represented the All-American dream girl.
Dawn Wells, who died at 82 from complications of Covid-19 on December 30, 2020, was from day one as American as apple pie, or more specifically, of the Coconut Cream of the crop selection. That was her dessert of choice when playing the beloved castaway Mary Ann Summers on the TV classic Gilligan's Island, which originally ran on CBS from 1964 to 1967.
With an earnest charm from an era gone by, Wells portrayed the farm fatale minus any disaster. Her peaches and cream complexion, combined with pig-tails, polka-dot shirt, short-shorts, and a bright and big heart, will always be a welcome presence in living rooms, or on any accessible mobile device.
A native of Reno, Wells was crowned Miss Nevada in 1959 and went on to compete in the 1960 Miss America pageant. Though a chemistry major at Stephens College in Missouri, she switched gears and earned a Theatre Arts degree from the University of Washington. Shortly after, she moved to Hollywood and made TV appearances on Bonanza, Maverick, The Joey Bishop Show and 77 Sunset Strip, and more.
Then came Gilligan's Island, during which she married agent Larry Rosen. But the show and the marriage only lasted three years.
After Gilligan ended, due to what Wells described as "a scheduling conflict" involving Gunsmoke and Mannix, she appeared in a series of three TV reunion movies based on the sitcom. "We were canceled for political reasons after we went on hiatus," Wells said. "So, we never had a chance to do a final episode or say goodbye to each other. Twelve years later we did the first reunion movie."
Wells also made two feature films in 1977: Return to Boggy Creek and The Town That Dreaded Sundown, and would return to TV in non-Gilligan guest spots on shows like The Invaders, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, The F.B.I., Growing Pains, and Columbo. More recently, she had lent her voice to The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants, while Amazon Prime had just picked up Dawn Wells Reel Adventures, which was shot in the late 1990s and featured her traveling the world with fly-fisher Kathy Ruddick.
Popular on the college lecture circuit, Wells owned an acting school, was an advocate for various charitable organizations, and presided over the Wishing Wells organization, which makes clothing for the disabled. Since 2004, she had been the spokesperson for Idaho Potatoes, which led to her demonstrating the ideal way to peel a potato in a publicity video that went viral and received over 10 million views.
Additionally, Wells had a successful career in regional and dinner theatre, appearing in nearly 100 live stage productions. She did musicals like They're Playing Our Song, and appeared in, among others, renditions of Bell, Book and Candle, The Owl and the Pussycat, Night of the Iguana, and The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, which was her favorite.
Most critics praised her live performances. Of her role in one adaptation of Neil Simon's Chapter Two, The Minneapolis Tribune wrote, "Never mind that Dawn Wells played Mary Ann in Gilligan's Island, she's a brilliant actress with a superb sense of timing."
While other actors may have felt stereotyped by playing a character like Mary Ann, Wells often satirically reprised the role on TV shows such as Roseanne, Baywatch, and ALF. She embraced her Mary Ann persona as a positive force in her life, which in turn became an inspiration in the lives of the countless many who enjoyed watching her on Gilligan's Island and beyond.
Mary Ann may have been marooned on a deserted island with six other castaways, but Wells's popularity on the show was also inescapable. Initially surprised by the attention, Wells eventually came to terms with what she called the "Mary Ann phenomenon."
But it was a process that developed from similar experiences over time. "Mary Ann has been such a big part of my life," she once said. "I created a character that meant something to some people. Everywhere I go in the world, I am greeted with love."
For example, she once visited the Solomon Islands, through which she canoed to a small island without running water or electricity, where no Caucasian woman had ever journeyed before. While meeting with a local native chief and his family, the leader's wife gestured to Wells, smiled, and said, "I know you."
Although the woman had never met Wells, she was familiar with the actress because she watched reruns of Gilligan's Island while attending nursing school in Honiara in 1979.
Though frequently "astonished at the emotional depth that poured from that woman's soul," Wells was pragmatic about it all. "People sincerely connect with characters on a TV sitcom," she said, "and they've certainly connected with Mary Ann."
After years of receiving praise and appreciation from fans of every age, gender, creed, and culture, be they adoring little girls, mothers, grandmothers, or men of every ilk, she finally got it. "Mary Ann Summers is an archetype" who to the mass population represents "dependability, fairness, and kindness," whether during the tumultuous 1960s or the chaotic challenges of modern times.
Amidst the plethora of frazzled but likable characters in the disjoined atmosphere of Gilligan's Island, Mary Ann was a steady and sane breath of fresh air.
There was Bob Denver's bumbling, but harmless, sailor man-boy Gilligan, "little buddy" to Alan Hale, Jr.'s inept, but dedicated Skipper. Joining them were Jim Backus and Natale Schaefer's terrifically self-involved millionaires Thurston Howell III and his Lovey wife, Tina Louise's spot-on Marilyn-Monroe-like movie star Ginger, and Russell Johnson's nameless, though intelligent, and ever dependable Professor.
At the epicenter of this lovable dysfunctional family was Mary Ann. She was the one who insisted the castaways help one another. She got things done — but with a nurturing heart always situated in the right place.
She didn't have Ginger's glitter, the Howells' funding, or the Professor's brains (who did?); nor did she partake in the camaraderie that was shared between the Skipper and Gilligan. "But she was the glue that held that adopted family together; the moral compass of the island, if you will," Wells said. "She possessed a sturdy faith and security; a strong sense of self and her mid-Western values; she brought more to the proverbial table than just her looks or charm."
Wells as Mary Ann surrounded her sitcom siblings with a near-angelic presence. She was the unlikely hero in a wacky shipwrecked bunch; an initially terrified team whose "three-hour tour" turned into an endless, delightful disarray of harmless fun. While Mary Ann was never meant to teach rocket science (that was up to the Professor), she and her fellow castaways will remain a blast to watch.
But for time immemorial, viewers will no doubt be mesmerized in particular by Dawn Wells and the affable Kansas country girl charm that she will forever provide to help calm the center of any storm.
Writer/producer Herbie J Pilato was a close friend to Dawn Wells. As the author of several celebrity biographies and media tie-in books, he is the host of Then Again with Herbie J Pilato, a classic TV talk show now streaming on Amazon Prime and Amazon Prime UK.