Dawn Wells, the actress best known for her role as Mary Ann Summers on Gilligan’s Island, has died at the age of 82. She succumbed to complications related to COVID-19 on Tuesday, December 30th, her publicist announced.
Born in 1938 in Reno, Nevada, Wells spent her early childhood defying typical beauty standards. Although she was overweight, suffered from severe acne, and had braces throughout middle school, Wells was embraced by her peers and often viewed as popular, notes The Hollywood Reporter. Turns out that charm followed her into adulthood. Wells was crowned Miss Nevada in 1959 and even competed in the 1960 Miss America beauty pageant — the same year she graduated from the University of Washington.
Initially, Wells’ early acting career was defined by smaller roles on TV shows like Wagon Train, Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and Bonanza. Then, in 1963, she landed her breakout role in Gilligan’s Island as Mary Ann, where she won over the hearts of viewers with her rural affability, good-mannered attitude, and twinkling doe eyes.
Gilligan’s Island originally aired from 1964 to 1967 on CBS where it became a beloved fixture for the network. As a kitschy sitcom with a tropical survival bent, the series was embraced by viewers as a form of escapism during the ongoing Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement. It was so popular that it went on to spawn several TV movies in the late ’70s and early ’80s, too.
A handful of cast members on Gilligan’s Island retroactively expressed frustration over being typecast. Wells, however, embraced the opportunity to be a girl-next-door figure, both in the moment and decades later when looking back.
“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,” Wells wrote in her 2014 book What Would Mary Ann Do?: A Guide to Life. “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… I know this because the core of Mary Ann is really me. I mean, I built her from scratch… if you play a character long enough on stage or screen, I think your true self shows through.”
After Gilligan’s Island was canceled, Wells appeared on other shows, such as The Wild Wild West and ALF. She also tried to break into feature films in the ’70s, starring in The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Return to Boggy Creek, and Winterhawk. Ultimately, she spent her later years engaging with fans, making Gilligan’s-related cameos in pop culture, and trying to spread good cheer to those around her.
I think I speak for all Gen X that we grew up on Gilligan's Island. If not on everyday after school, every weekend we watched.
Dawn Wells is a loss to our childhood. pic.twitter.com/v32F7Nhzf6
— Danny Deraney (@DannyDeraney) December 30, 2020
It was such a thrill for me to meet Dawn Wells when she came to see Two and a Half Men.
— Jon Cryer (@MrJonCryer) December 30, 2020
In honor of Dawn Wells pic.twitter.com/ABcuxQ0jiD
— Vintage Los Angeles (@alisonmartino) December 30, 2020