Paul Batura: ‘Gilligan’s Island’ star Dawn Wells dies – unlike on TV, she’s saved in real life

Dawn Wells, the actress who went on a fictional “three-hour tour” in 1964 and gained lifelong fame as the bubbly girl next to Mary Ann Summers in the TV sitcom “Gilligan’s Island”, died Wednesday of complications from COVID-19 – one of more than 341,000 Americans who died in the pandemic.

Unfortunately, Wells’ life, which ended at the age of 82, was not as neat and tidy as the television program about tour boat passengers suffering a shipwreck in a storm on a deserted island somewhere in the Pacific. Of course, we all have our storms in life. And in real life, none of us have solved all our problems once every 30 minutes once a week. Wells was no exception.

On TV, Mary Ann miraculously managed to not only survive but also thrive during three years of great baldness on the island. She made it through mishaps with her unfortunate fellow scouts, floods, volcanoes and even the arrival of uninvited visitors. It is likely that the stranded group was able to find all sorts of ways to meet the challenges but never figured out how to build a boat that would allow them to depart.


Unfortunately, Wells spent her twilight years through a myriad of personal challenges, including a fall that again left her financially poor and left to save.

In the end, her rescuers were her dedicated fans, raising $ 197,000 to help her get out of bankruptcy through a one-month GoFundMe campaign.

Dawn Wells as her character Mary Ann in the 1964 TV show 'Gilligan's Island'.

Dawn Wells as her character Mary Ann in the 1964 TV show ‘Gilligan’s Island’.
(Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

It seems like it was almost made for television – except that Wells’ real life was not fictional or fantastic. It was a testament to her ability to resonate with the friendly and wholesome young woman she portrayed. In reruns yet to be aired, she never grew old and never left ‘Gilligan’s Island’ after the series’ three years of new episodes ended.

Wells was born on October 18, 1938 in Reno, Nevada. She characterized the discomfort of her teens through acne, obesity, wires and bad knees of ballet to be chosen as Miss Nevada in 1960 and to compete for the Miss America crown.

Four years later, Wells became the darling of America after she passed the role of a farm girl in Kansas aboard the fatal SS Minnow who suffered shipwreck on ‘Gilligan’s Island’.

The character’s simple goodness resonated with generations of viewers.

Dawn Wells in 2014, with her book 'What Would Mary Ann Do?  A Guide to Life, 'which she co-wrote with Steve Stinson.

Dawn Wells in 2014, with her book ‘What Would Mary Ann Do? A Guide to Life, ‘which she co-wrote with Steve Stinson.
(Getty Images)

While playing with an ensemble of stars, some of whom have already settled in Hollywood, including Gilligan (Bob Denver), the Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.) and the millionaire Thurston Howell III (Jim Backus), Wells’ character is not not even mentioned. in the first season’s opening theme song. If you listen to the litany of the characters of the program, you hear the role of Mary Ann and the professor (Russell Johnson) simply called ‘the rest’.

But despite her credit anonymity, Wells did not take long to win hearts and fans in the early stages of the series.


“Every character on Gilligan’s Island has been given a broad comedy role – captain, partner, wealthy man, rich woman, professor, film star – except me,” Wells noted in her autobiography. “She got a name and a place – farm girl in Kansas. I had to fill in the blanks. From the start, the Mary Ann character was different. She was not a Hollywood creation. She was shaped by me, by me. off.”

Unlike her female compatriot, the stuffy and lively Ginger Grant (Tina Louise), Dawn Wells’ Mary Ann character was the wholesome alternative. She was the ‘good girl’ who won friends over and influenced people by her sweetness, not by her seductive sexuality.

So-called ‘good girls’ are often ridiculed in Hollywood and especially in sitcoms, which are used as naive simplicity. “Gilligan’s Island” was not moralizing; it plays according to the sexual stereotype with Ginger. But I would argue that Mary Ann’s legions of fans have seen in her admirable qualities that parents want for their daughters, men want for their wives and many girls want for themselves.

I will be honest. Ginger intimidated me as a kid watching ‘Gilligan’s Island’ reruns. But Mary Ann? She was the kind of girl I wanted to get to know. In fact, Mary Ann is the type of girl I ended up with. Julie Hamilton’s classic beauty immediately caught my attention, but it was her sweetness and kindness that I fell in love with more than 20 years ago. She was nice to be around – and still is.


Popular culture tends to glorify the seducer, but marriages are held together by more than sexual chemistry. Men who find in their wives the qualities that the fictional Mary Ann Summers possess are exponentially more likely to enjoy happier marriages.

It turns out that Wells’ real persona matches her stray character. In recent years, co-star “Gilligan’s Island” has operated Wishing Wells Collections – a company she created to design and manufacture clothing for the elderly with physical disabilities.

In the end, it was Wells’ own persona, brought to her TV character, that caused so many fans to act to help her when she needed to be saved in real life. The GoFundMe page gave Wells something Mary Ann never got – a boat to enable her to get away from a bad situation.


“I’m amazed at the kindness and love I received,” Wells said during her financial rescue. “I do not know how it happened. I thought I had taken all the right steps to secure my golden years. Now, here I am, no family, no husband, no children and no money.”

Unfortunately, bad things happen to good people, but good people like Dawn Wells tend to surround themselves with other people who are willing to help when hard times come – whether it be on a three-hour tour, a deserted island. or by a stormstorm life.