From ‘Gilligan’s Island’ to ‘Steel Magnolias,’ Dawn Wells is grateful for a career graced with love from fans 


A few years ago, Dawn Wells was traveling by canoe through a remote part of the Solomon Islands with a group of friends. And just like the conditions Wells faced as Mary Ann on “Gilligan’s Island,” the surroundings were primitive. 

No phone. No lights. No motor car. Not a single luxury.  

“There was no electricity, no running water and all the little huts were set on stilts,” Wells recalls. “And there in the village, the chief’s wife pointed at me and said, ‘I know you – as a little girl, I lived in the capital. I used to go home after school and watch you in black and white!’” 

It’s a familiar occurrence for Wells, whose three years as farm girl Mary Ann Summers on the popular 1960s sitcom bestowed upon her TV immortality. 

“I can’t go anywhere in the world without people knowing (Gilligan’s Island),” Wells told the Recorder in an interview last week during rehearsals for The Alhambra production of “Steel Magnolias.”  

“And I’m greeted with love everywhere I go.” 

Unlike some actors who resent being so closely associated with one particular role, Wells expresses nothing but gratitude for the show that made her a household name and earned her generations of fans. And she has strong words for actors who complain about being similarly recognized. 

“Get over it,” Wells said. “How selfish can they be? You’ve made the money. You’ve got the following and you’re respected in the industry. Why would you put that down?” 


TV castaway 

A former Miss Nevada who competed in the Miss America pageant, Wells arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1960s fresh out of the University of Washington, where she majored in theatre. After landing a role in a play with Mercedes McCambridge and Leon Ames, Wells was spotted by an agent and soon was doing television parts on series such as “Wagon Train” and “77 Sunset Strip.” And when producers were looking for a new face to replace the original actress who appeared in the pilot for “Gilligan’s Island,” Wells fit the bill. 

“I was the ingénue, the farm girl,” Wells said. “In those days, you wouldn’t have cast me as anything but the ingénue. Actresses today have all kinds of opportunities. It isn’t as much about beauty.” 

To the astonishment of everyone involved, “Gilligan’s Island” became an instant hit. And while the show would only run for three years in prime time, its popularity in reruns has endured for decades, earning the series generations of fans. 

Wells attributes part of the show’s appeal to its premise. 

“It’s kind of that Robinson Crusoe thing,” she said. “I think we’ve all had that fantasy. What would it be like to live on an island and survive? And it takes you back to your childhood.” 

The show’s memorable cast of characters also contributed to its following, she added. 

“The chemistry among the seven of us was perfect,” she said. “It was perfect casting and the talent was wonderful. Bob Denver (as Gilligan) was a genius at physical comedy.” 

On a deeper level, Wells believes the show was a metaphor for the wider world. 

“It was seven different people thrown together getting along, and that’s what the world is – seven continents trying to get along,” she said. “The world is all one place now, and I think we are all more alike than we are different.” 

After “Gilligan’s Island” ended, Wells focused her talents on the theatre, appearing in numerous stage productions, including “The Owl and the Pussycat,” “The Lion in Winter” and the musical “They’re Playing Our Song.” 

“The stage is my real love,” she said. “You’re sharing your soul.” 

One of her first post-Gilligan’s Island theatrical appearances was at The Alhambra, where she starred in a 1969 production of “Barefoot in the Park,” once again playing the ingénue. Her return to The Alhambra’s stage as part of its 50th anniversary season in “Steel Magnolias” finds Wells portraying Ouiser Boudreaux – a role that is a distinct departure from loveable Mary Ann.  

“She’s a curmudgeon,” Wells said of the role portrayed in the film version by Shirley Maclaine. “She’s cranky.” 

After countless stage and screen performances over her many years in show business, Wells continues to appreciate the opportunity to share her talents with audiences around the world. 

“I’m very grateful,” said Wells, before offering some advice to aspiring thespians. 

“Life is what you make of it,” she said. “What you put into it, you get back. Work hard. Be prepared. Do your homework. And remember it’s not all about you.”