Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann on ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ dies of COVID-19 at 82
Dawn Wells, who starred as girl-next-door Mary Ann in the 1960s hit TV show “Gilligan’s Island,” died of complications from COVID-19. She was 82.
Actress Dawn Wells, the former beauty queen who became America’s sweetheart by playing the girl-next-door castaway Mary Ann on the TV series “Gilligan’s Island,” has died. She was 82.
Wells died Wednesday of complications from COVID-19, her publicist Harlan Boll said in a statement to The Times. She had been in an assisted-living facility in Los Angeles.
“America’s favorite castaway, Dawn Wells, passed peacefully this morning, in no pain as a result of complications due to Covid,” Boll said.
The Reno native, who competed as Miss Nevada in the 1959 Miss America pageant, became synonymous with the castaway during the CBS sitcom’s run between 1964 and 1967. She also appeared in “77 Sunset Strip,” “Maverick,” “Bonanza,” “The Joey Bishop Show” and “Hawaiian Eye.”
Alongside Ginger Grant, the late performer’s Mary Ann Summers left a mark in the collective pop consciousness that long outlasted “Gilligan’s Island” itself.
Mary Ann was modeled after Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” a Kansas farm girl with pigtails and gingham dresses. Wells reportedly beat out 350 prospective actress, including Raquel Welch, for the role. CBS paid her $700 a week when she started.
Playing the bright, fair-minded and reasonable castaway, she was often the foil to the harebrained antics of the show’s other characters.
“It’s amazing to see what the 45-year-old man who is now raising children is saying to me,” Wells told The Times in 2014. “‘You were my fantasy. You were the girl I would take to the prom. You were the girl who understood my problems.’”
Despite her popularity — and the infamous rivalry with “the movie star” castaway, Ginger (played by Tina Louise, the show’s last surviving cast member) — her character, and the coconut-loving Professor, weren’t mentioned in the series’ catchy theme song until costar Bob Denver (Gilligan) insisted on it.
“Dawn would say that Mary Ann fits today just as she fit three generations ago, because she is timeless,” Boll said. “In a world where the industry and society has been celebrating their ‘Bad girls,’ Mary Ann continues to be, for many, the breathe [sic] of fresh air as the ‘Good Girl.’”
Wells’ gingham dress and famous belly button-covering shorts from the series are currently on display in the lobby of the Hollywood Museum, Boll said.
Born in Reno, Nev., on Oct. 18, 1938, Wells told The Times that her mother raised her with “Mary Ann values” amid the gambling and prostitution rampant in the Silver State. Wells’ parents divorced when she was young, and they shared custody of her with “no conflict.” Her father, who was married four times, lived in Las Vegas. Wells attended the all-girls Stephens College in Missouri and the University of Washington in Seattle, where she earned her degree in theater arts.
She came to Los Angeles and began working in theater, TV and in such films as 1963’s “Palm Springs Weekend.” She would go on to star in more than 150 TV shows and seven films. Often typecast as Mary Ann, Wells worked primarily in theater after “Gilligan’s Island” went off the air. She appeared in more than 60 theatrical productions, including the 1981 staging of “They’re Playing Our Song” on Broadway.
“The first thing I did [after ‘Gilligan’] was ‘The Owl and the Pussycat,’ where I played a hooker,” she told The Times. “But it took me two years to get cast in ‘The Vagina Monologues.’ I think they think of you as a film actor who doesn’t do stage, so they don’t know your range.”
Ever since the premiere of the CBS sitcom “Gilligan’s Island” 50 years ago, people have been asking the burning question: Ginger or Mary Ann?
More recently, Wells played Annie Hughes in the web series “Life Interrupted” and the web series shorts “She’s Still on That Freaking Island” with Terry Ray. She voiced Gumbalina Toothington in the animated series “The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants.”
She also racked up credits as a producer, author, journalist, motivational speaker and humanitarian. She chaired the Terry Lee Wells Foundation, which focuses on women and children in northern Nevada, and ran her Film Actors Boot Camp for seven years in Idaho.
Reflecting on her career, she told KTLA in 2019 that she would have liked to appear in more movies and play against type.
A half century after Mary Ann got off the island, we’re taking her back. Dawn Wells joins us for a Gilligan-themed tiki party in Echo Park.
“I haven’t done as much film as I’d like. I’d like to play a real nasty person, ’cause you always love Mary Ann, and I’d like to play the opposite of what I do most of the time,” she said. “But I hope I’m working until I drop dead.”
No services are scheduled at this time, and in lieu of flowers, donations are requested to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum or the Shambala Preserve.
Actors William Shatner, Jane Lynch and Jon Cryer were among the celebrities mourning the star Wednesday. Here are some of their reactions:
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.