Dawn Wells still lives on - and loves - "Gilligan's Island"
Before actress Dawn Wells could hear well-wishers telling her to “break a leg,” she had to dislocate a knee.
And were it not for that dislocated knee, America might’ve missed out on one of its most beloved icons of pop culture.
In the late 1950s, Wells — the cute, young actress TV audiences fell in love with as Mary Ann on “Gilligan’s Island” — was a chemistry major at Stephens College in Missouri, dreaming of a career in pediatric surgery.
Enter the dislocated knee.
“I took a theater course instead of PE — you can only do archery and canoeing for so long — and I fell in love with the theater,” Wells recalled during a recent telephone interview from her home in Los Angeles. “My professor said, ‘You’re pretty good at theater — you should major in this.’ So I transferred to the University of Washington, which has a great theater school, and got my degree.”
Even then, she still wasn’t sold on a career in acting.
“I gave myself a year when I got out of school,” she recalled. “I told myself if it didn’t work out, I’d go back to med school, but I went right to work.”
Indeed, she did. Wells picked up roles in such television series as “The Roaring ’20s,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “The Cheyenne Show,” “Maverick” and “Bonanza” before landing the role that would make her famous — Kansas farm girl Mary Ann Summers, one of seven castaways on the wildly popular 1960s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island.”
That was in 1964. Today, nearly half a century later, the 74-year-old actress still can’t go anywhere without being recognized from her iconic role.
This week, Wells will be in Winston-Salem for the 36th annual Western Film Fair, an event dedicated to preserving and promoting the memories and ideals of Western movies and classic television.
Although Wells has plenty of Western TV series in her credits — in addition to “Maverick” and “Bonanza,” she also appeared in episodes of “Wagon Train” and “Tales of Wells Fargo” — the fans who show up to meet her will almost all be “Gilligan” fans.
“I tested with about 350 girls for the role” — one of whom was Raquel Welch — “and they kept telling me the part was mine, but you never know till you sign the contract,” Wells recalled.
Naturally, she was thrilled when she actually got the role, despite the show’s somewhat goofy premise.
“I don’t know, did ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ have potential?” she said. “I thought it was kind of a clever idea, I thought the cast was wonderful, and at that stage of your career, you don’t really analyze — you’re just glad to be working. CBS bet we would be off the air in six weeks. Sherwood (Schwartz, the show’s producer) said, ‘No, you’re wrong,’ and we were in the top 10 from beginning to end.”
The show lasted only three seasons (1964-67), but continues to run in syndication to this day.
And Mary Ann — the sweet, lovable girl-next-door — consistently was voted as viewers’ favorite castaway.
“She would’ve been your best friend, would’ve been a great mother, would’ve been a great wife, and she was low-maintenance,” Wells said with a chuckle. “She cooked, she cleaned — she was the perfect girl.”
Oh, and one other thing.
“Sherwood had the good sense to put me in shorts,” she adds. “They were the first shorts on television. I had to cover my navel.”
Wells recalls the show was a joy to film.
“Oh, it was so much fun,” she said. “We had such a great cast. The Professor (played by Russell Johnson) had the greatest sense of humor, and Bobby (the late Bob Denver, who played Gilligan) was a wonderful, gentle soul. But it was always like, ‘Oh my god, there’s an astronaut coming in — how’s he gonna get off the island?’ Or ‘There’s a surfer coming.’ We never knew what was gonna happen next, but we had a good time, and I think it shows.”
When the show was canceled, Wells intentionally did some theater work to avoid typecasting problems.
“I came out of the series and went to the stage, so I wouldn’t be playing a little farm girl the rest of my life,” she said.
Now, as the show nears the 50th anniversary of its debut, only three castaways are still alive — Wells, Russell Johnson and Tina Louise (who played movie star Ginger Grant). Wells still keeps in touch with Johnson, who’s now 88. She doesn’t stay in touch with Louise — who’s 79 now — but she denies the rumors that there’s any kind of riff between the two actresses.
“People have said we didn’t like each other, but I don’t know where that came from,” Wells said. “If she had any discord on the show, it was handled in the office. She didn’t do some of the reunions like the rest of us, but we didn’t dislike each other. I learned a lot from her during the show.”
Just as the seven castaways never escaped from the deserted island they were stranded on, Wells never escaped her role as Mary Ann — and she’s perfectly fine with that. Even today, she continues to embrace the role that made her an icon.
“I can’t go anywhere in the world without being recognized, because Mary Ann was such a universal character,” she said. “I’ve never been able to get away from that character, but why would I want to?”
email@example.com | 888-3579
Want to go?
The 36th annual Western Film Fair will be held Wednesday through Saturday at the Hawthorne Inn & Conference Center, 420 High St., Winston-Salem.
Guest stars include Dawn Wells, Clu Gulager, Chris Robinson, Robert Colbert, Belinda Montgomery, Morgan Brittany, Michael McGreevey and Sandra Van Natta. Musical guests include Rex Allen Jr., Alias Smith & Owens, and Jerry Williams.
The event will include daily autograph and photo sessions with the stars (Thursday through Saturday only, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.); screenings of 16mm movies; a dealer memorabilia room featuring posters, lobby cards, stills, comics, 16mm films, toys, books, records, magazines and more; daily panel interviews with the stars (Thursday through Saturday only); nightly entertainment; and more.
Admission is $20 for a daily pass, $5 after 5 p.m.; $60 for a three-day pass, $75 for a three-day pass for married couples.
For more information, visit www.westernfilmfair.com.