Dawn Wells passed away on Wednesday in Los Angeles due to COVID-19. While the details were not specified, her publicist did confirm the cause was related to the pandemic. The 82-year-old actress was best known for her role as Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island, a beloved television series that aired for 3 seasons from 1964-1967 on CBS.
Dawn Wells was born in Reno, Nevada in 1938. After starting her collegiate career as a chemistry major at Stephens College, she eventually transferred to the University of Washington in Seattle and received a degree in theater arts and design. She was also crowned Miss Nevada in 1959 and competed in the Miss America Pageant of 1960.
Dawn Wells made her television debut in ABC’s drama series The Roaring, clearly set in the 20s, and first appeared on the silver screen in films like Palm Springs Weekend and The New Interns. Other notable TV appearances included spots on Maverick and Bonanza before she landed her big breakout role on the set of Gilligan’s Island, where she appeared as Mary Ann for 98 episodes. She also guested on The Wild Wild West, Alf, Growing Pains, Baywatch, Roseanne, and The Bold and The Beautiful.
The Legacy Of Dawn Wells
In the 2014 self-help book What Would Mary Ann Do? A Guide To Life, Wells and her Gilligan’s Island co-star Russell Johnson (who played The Professor) spoke on the impact of Mary Ann on popular culture. According to them:
“We love Mary Ann because she is the future, the hope of our world. The youngest of the castaways, Mary Ann has her entire life in front of her,” Johnson wrote in his foreword to the book. “Watching her unfailing good cheer, her optimism is never in question. We love her because we need her emotional support and her belief that all will turn out well … We love Mary Ann because of Dawn Wells.”
Wells stated later in the book that Mary Ann was “a little bit more of a goody-two-shoes than I am”, but that she also brought many of her own personality traits to the character:
“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. 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… Mary Ann wasn’t just a silly and sweet ingenue. She was bright, fair-minded and reasonable, and I like to think that’s what I brought to her.”
Wells opened Wishing Wells Collections, a company specializing in clothing for elderly individuals with limited mobility, and started the nonprofit Idaho Film And Television Institute. She took part in the Denver Foundation (launched by late Gilligan co-star Bob Denver) and received $197,000 from a 2018 GoFundMe campaign started by adoring fans to help pay her medical bills after a fall. The character of Mary Ann is avidly discussed to this day.
May Dawn Wells rest in peace, and may her contributions to pop culture and beyond be remembered for decades to come. In the present, however, let us remember to keep our masks on and go out as little as possible in order to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.
We should all strive to be as “bright, fair-minded and reasonable” as both Mary Ann and Dawn Wells were.