Dawn Wells - the actress who has captured the hearts of multiple generations of viewers as Gilligan's Island character Mary Ann Summers - has died at the age of 82, of causes related to COVID-19. Wells, a former beauty queen, is forever immortalized as the girl-next-door sweetheart in the ensemble of castaways stranded on that deserted island; she was one of the two last surviving members of the Gilligan's Island cast, with Tina Louise (who played Ginger Grant) now being the sole survivor. Wells openly embraced the Gilligan's Island fandom (and all those crushes on her Mary Ann character) throughout her life and career, and she will be sorely missed...
Wells was born in Reno Nevada in 1938, where her father owns a shipping company. She was actually a chemistry major in college (Stephens College), before transferring to the University of Washington (Seattle) where she got her degree in theater arts and design. In 1959, Wells was crowned Miss Nevada and competed in the 1960 Miss America pageant.
Hollywood opened up to the beauty queen, thereafter. Wells made her TV debut in ABC's The Roaring 20s period drama series (1960), and got her movie run in 60s films like Palm Springs Weekend (1963) and The New Interns (1964); She had roles on a variety of TV shows (including Maverick and Bonanza) before she got her breakout role as Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island. That series ran for 3 seasons from 1964 - 1967, and made Wells a '60s icon - the embodiment of the youth culture and its ideals at that pivotal time. Gilligan's Island has only grown in fame since it's been repeatedly syndicated and replayed for new generations - and Dawn Wells' Mary Ann has similarly remained iconic, along with the show. Later on, Wells would appear in many popular TV series Including The Wild Wild West, ALF, Growing Pains, Baywatch, Roseanne, and even an episode of The Bold and teh Beautiful in 2016.
Actor Russell Johnson (The Professor) and Wells both addressed the enduring iconography of Mary Ann in Wells' 2014 book, What Would Mary Ann Do?: A Guide to Life:
"We love Mary Ann because she is the future, the hope of our world. The youngest of the castaways, Mary Ann has her entire life in front of her," Johnson wrote in his foreword to the book. "Watching her unfailing good cheer, her optimism is never in question. We love her because we need her emotional support and her belief that all will turn out well … We love Mary Ann because of Dawn Wells."
Wells revealed in the book that Mary Ann very much is her - not a creation of the writers room: "Every character on Gilligan's Island was given a broad 'stock' comedy role to fill — captain, mate, wealthy man, wealthy wife, professor, movie star — except me. She was given a name and location — Kansas farm girl. I had to fill in the blanks. So, from the get-go, the Mary Ann character was different. She wasn't a Hollywood creation. She was molded by me, from me... Mary Ann wasn't just a silly and sweet ingenue. She was bright, fair-minded and reasonable, and I like to think that's what I brought to her."
Although, the actress did make sure to note she wasn't completely a Mary Ann: "She was a little more of a Goody Two-shoes than I am."
Dawn Wells' personal values being infused into the character eventually made Mary Ann more than a lovable character - to this day she remains a prominent litmus test for the kind of good woman people are seeking out, as the "Ginger vs. Mary Ann" model of female allure is still being debated.
In her later years, Wells started Wishing Wells Collections to make clothing aimed at elderly people with restricted mobility, and the nonprofit Idaho Film and Television Institute. She also participated in the Denver Foundation, started by late Gilligan actor and comedian, Bob Denver. Wells did all of that even when in need herself: In 2018 she recieved $197,000 from a GoFundMe started by adoring fans, after suffering a fall that left her swamped in medical bills. Such is the power and legacy of her work and spirit.
RIP to Dawn Wells. Our Condolences to her family and friends in their time of grieving.