by Ronald Sklar
Here’s Exhibit A of making lemonade out of lemons. Dawn Wells is most widely known for a role she played almost 50 years ago. As Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island, she won audiences’ hearts and minds, but the critics were less than kind to the series. They thought it was as low as television could possibly sink. Little did they know.
The series ran on CBS for three years, and then forever in reruns, cable, DVD, Me TV and Hulu. Three generations later, Dawn is still one of the most recognizable faces in the world (and what a face!).
In the decades since the series’ cancellation in 1967, she gathered no moss. She returned to her first love, theater, and kept herself busy and happy on stage, along with philanthropic pursuits that have helped scores of people in a number of loving and kind ways.
Bitter about typecasting? Not on your life. She’s young-minded but old school, grateful for the millions of people who adore her. For her, Gilligan is not off limits.
Born and raised in Reno, Nevada, Dawn was a Miss America contestant and a chemistry major in college, heading for med school. More surprises awaited us in our awesome interview:
Let’s start with the most pressing question in humankind: Ginger or Mary Ann?
Someone said to me, how do you feel about all those Ginger vs. Mary Ann polls? I said, “I always win them!” I embrace it!
Has your feeling about Gilligan’s Island changed in the decades since its original network run?
It’s shown all over the world, and you can understand that. When you actually stop and think about it, yeah, it really is stupid, but yet they really did have something. I thought it was corny when I was doing it, but I recently saw it and went, “This is funny!”
What was your pre-Gilligan acting career like?
I had been put under option contract for Warner Brothers when I first came to Los Angeles. I did all of their TV shows, one after the other. They didn’t pick up the contract, but I had that experience.
Were you offered the part of Mary Ann, or did you have to audition?
I was just a working actress, but I was auditioning for the [character]. There were 300 other women. And I just auditioned like anybody else. [Series producer] Sherwood Schwartz and I had a meeting and we laughed and talked about a lot of stuff. At first, they thought I was too smart to play Mary Ann. So they tested me. Mary Ann was just a girl from Kansas. There was no other description. She wasn’t a schoolteacher. She wasn’t a secretary. We didn’t know what she was. The actress who was going to come into that role had to bring what she was, to give dimension to that character. I really think that Sherwood had a different image in mind, like the Donna Douglas [The Beverly Hillbillies‘ Elly Mae]/Petticoat Junction ingénue, rather than the strength Mary Ann had. I think we were all perfectly cast, but I think I changed his mind a little.
Was your first reaction to the script, “What is this?”
I don’t think I really analyzed it. If you talk about Star Trek, who would believe that? I know what the press said: they said it was the stupidest show ever and it wouldn’t last more than 20 minutes. I think the cast and the crew were fabulous, but I don’t think I would have watched it.
Where were you born and raised?
Nevada, fourth generation. My grandfather drove a stagecoach. There was less going on there. I didn’t want to live at home and go to college like I was going to high school. I wanted to learn more, see more.
Growing up, who were your acting influences?
I hate to tell you, not many people. I was a chemistry major moving on to become a pediatrician. I look back, of course, to Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis. Now we’re looking at Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett. I was into the real acting as opposed to the pretty face. That was a big deal when I was growing up. We had the movie stars.