In the mid-’60s, Dawn Wells played girl-next-door Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island. For the young actress, it turned out to be much longer than a three hour or even a three season cruise.
Wells died Wednesday from complications from COVID-19. She was 82.
The former Miss Nevada was still in her twenties when the series ended in 1967. She did other work, mainly guest star stints in television and regional theatre, but like fellow ’60s TV star Adam West from Batman, she eventually embraced the type-casting fame that changed her life.
She participated in all three Gilligan TV-movie spinoffs that followed, lent her voice to a Saturday morning animated Gilligan series (Gilligan’s Planet) and even joined fellow castaways on reunion-themed daytime talk show episodes. Then came the autograph shows for fans old enough to remember that they always liked Mary Ann more than they liked movie star Ginger (played by the last surviving cast-mate from the series, Tina Louise).
That’s where I met Wells in 1998. She was one of dozens of former TV stars gathered at the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles. The stars were grouped at tables behind stacks of photos. Wells sat next to one of her former Gilligan pals, Russell Johnson, a.k.a. “The Professor.” They were the two unceremoniously known as “and the rest” in the opening theme to the first season of the series.
There were many former stars there that weekend, including Lou “The Hulk” Ferringo; Eddie Haskell and Lumpy Rutherford (Ken Osmond and Frank Bank) from Leave it to Beaver and Ken Berry and Larry Storch from F-Troop. Several Mouseketeers and even a few actors who played Munchkins from “The Wizard of Oz” were in the hotel banquet room, as was Bob May, the guy inside the robot suit on Lost in Space.
The big draws, however, were Mary Ann and The Professor. Fans were lining up to pay Wells and Johnson twenty bucks each to sign 8 x 10 glossies from the series. Unlike anyone else in the room, the former castaways were also signing coconuts.
I was at the show with friend and photographer Gene Trindl, who had shot all the Gilligan stars back when the series was produced in the Valley on the CBS Radford Studio lot. Gene was the ultimate ice breaker in that he knew everybody in the room and they were all happy to see him and pose for a quick snap shot.
Wells took a few minutes for questions about the series. She was especially close to Gilligan himself, Bob Denver, who died in 2005 at 70. When she heard I was from Canada she talked up what was then a current venture, a fishing show shot in and around Vancouver called Dawn Wells Reel Adventures. Her specialty was fly fishing, and she co-starred on the 13-episode reality series with Kathy Ruddick.
Friendly and full of pep, she looked younger than her 60 years at that autograph session 22 years ago. That she succumbed to COVID in her early eighties is another gut punch to boomers at the end of a terrible year. Condolences to her family and all those fans who lined up for their moment with Mary Ann.