Dawn Wells Interview: Celebrating 55 Years of America's Favorite Shipwreck
Written by Marc Parker and Melissa Benefield Parker, Posted in Interviews Actors
Image attributed to Dawn Wells
Dawn Wells became known for her role as Mary Ann Summers on the CBS sitcom Gilligan’s Island. Wells’ character, Mary Ann, who was originally listed as “And the rest” in the credits, became the fan favorite, garnering more fan mail than the title character. Her other TV credits include Wagon Train, Maverick, Bonanza, The New Joey Bishop Show, Gilligan’s Planet, Baywatch, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Surviving Gilligan’s Island, The Bold and the Beautiful and The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants.
The Hollywood Museum is pleased to announce that they will be celebrating the 55thanniversary of America’s favorite shipwreck, Gilligan’s Island, on September 25, 2019. The beloved series is the longest-running sitcom still showing worldwide in over 30 languages. The museum will unveil some of pop culture’s most iconic costumes with Gilligan’s white sailor cap as well as the gingham dress and the navel-covering shorts with matching midriff top worn by Wells as Mary Ann Summers.
"We went to the top 10 right away, and we’re in 30 languages all over the world. There’s no dating the show. Is it the '60s or '80s? You don’t even know."
In addition, Wells will be signing the newly released, updated version of her book A Guide to Life: What Would Mary Ann Do? following the unveiling. The exhibit opens to the public on September 26, same day as the actual 55thanniversary of the premiere date of Gilligan’s Island in 1964.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Dawn, you wanted to become a ballerina and even a doctor at one point in your life, so why did you decide to pursue acting?
Dawn Wells: Well, that’s kind of interesting because I had to give up ballet because my knee dislocated, and I’ve always been interested in science. I went away to Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. It’s a small town and a small school. I guess I got the acting bug because they cast me in a couple of plays, and I never looked back.
When I graduated, I went to the University of Washington in Seattle. I thought, “What do I do? Where do I go?” I didn’t sing, and I didn’t dance. Most of that is New York stage. So I went to LA and went to work right away. I was the perfect type, the girl from Kansas, you know?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So it wasn’t tough to land that first acting job?
Dawn Wells: No. I had taken an acting class. Everybody does that. But I just got an agent at a small little agency, and they just sent me out for auditions all the time. I was a perfect type. I was a little round-faced ingénue, and there were a lot of guest spots for that type, just not for the very challenging roles, so to speak. I went to work right away. I was trained. I studied for it, but I was lucky. There was a lot of stuff being filmed and quite a bit going on in the 60s in television. I probably had two or three auditions a day. I did a couple of movies, but you’d get guest spots on all these TV shows. You’d work right away.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was there someone in those early westerns or dramas that showed you the acting ropes?
Dawn Wells: No. I think you were kind of responsible for that yourself. When you’re shooting a series, everybody’s coming and going. Nobody spends any time with you particularly. I took classes at the Desilu Studios though. I mean, I had acting classes that I continued with while I was working. But then you kind of made friends with everybody. You all knew the casting directors. It’s kind of a small town. It really is. But to get into the big movies, it’s not small. Television fits a small group of people, I think.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you ever run into Desi or Lucy?
Dawn Wells: I did not, and I was in the Desilu Studios a lot. I didn’t meet either one of them (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You met and became friends with Barbara Eden during that time?
Dawn Wells: Yes. We’re very good friends. We lived a couple of blocks from each other, so we have had many a Bridge game at night. She’s a lovely lady.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What has changed in the industry from the 60s to current day?
Dawn Wells: That’s an interesting question because after I did Gilligan’s Island, I went back to the stage and did a lot of touring. The theater gave me the opportunity to play characters other than the sweet little ingénue. I don’t really know what’s going on now in television. I don’t have many auditions. I get offered theater a lot, but I think you can just get cast now without auditions. I’ve been around long enough though. They know what I can do or can’t do (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tell me about the audition for Gilligan’s Island and the character of Mary Ann Summers.
Dawn Wells: I went in and tested with I don’t know how many girls. There were quite a few. It was the people … we all grew up together. All the ingénues were auditioning, and I got it. But you would go on so many auditions, and you never knew what you were going to get.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What were you told about Mary Ann?
Dawn Wells: Just that she was a little girl from Kansas. I had an image in my mind of what she should be, wearing denim and a ponytail. I knew who she should be, and I think when you do stage a lot, you can do that. You lock in what and who the character is. They didn’t give you a description. I don’t even remember how many people auditioned for the role. You would do it for two or three days in a row, and they would either call you back or not.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did the cast have any script input on their characters?
Dawn Wells: No. The writers just wrote the script. You would bring to the character what you needed to bring to it. Jim Backus may have brought more to it because he was very funny. Natalie (Schafer) was very much Mrs. Howell, and Ginger was a movie star. It’s all in the casting. It really is. Casting is the most important thing.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: There was definitely some chemistry between the cast members.
Dawn Wells: And Bob (Denver) was so skinny and little and Alan (Hale, Jr.) was the same size as my dad. The two of them were wonderful.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes. Laurel and Hardy come to mind while watching the two of them banter back and forth. Was Bob funny off set as well?
Dawn Wells: No. He was not very witty. He was very much an intelligent man. Bob was very smart and always quite serious. Jim Backus was the one who had the sense of humor. Alan was a big jovial guy. But Bob was not witty at all. He could play any character and was very good at the stunt stuff though, falling out of trees and all that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And Tina Louise?
Dawn Wells: Well, I learned a lot from her. She was very adamant about the camera angles. I did a lot of stage, so I wasn’t really paying much attention to the cameras. She was very particular about how she looked on camera, so I learned a lot from her. She’d had quite the career going before I met her, so she she knew what camera was best for her. We were all family. You didn’t see anybody trying to outdo the other or anything like that. There were no temperaments on the set.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you have a favorite episode of Gilligan’s Island?
Dawn Wells: Oh, I loved the dream sequences when we all got to be different people (laughs). I was not just Mary Ann, I was a witch or something. I liked those the best.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Gilligan’s Island only ran for three seasons, and yet it remains popular even today. Did you realize how big the show would be at the time?
Dawn Wells: No, and the critics just thought it was the stupidest thing. We went to the top 10 right away, and we’re in 30 languages all over the world. There’s no dating the show. Is it the '60s or '80s? You don’t even know.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Were you stereotyped after the show as a “good girl,” so that you didn’t get some of the more “bitchy” parts you may have auditioned for?
Dawn Wells: The first thing I did after the series ended was I went and did The Owl and the Pussycat and played a hooker (laughs). So I broke that Mary Ann mold right there. I played a hooker. She was a nice hooker but still a hooker (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So either you weren’t stereotyped, or you were convincing as a hooker (laughs).
Dawn Wells: (laughs) And on stage, you can fool anybody far away. Mary Ann was a good girl. She was polite. She was a hard worker. She would be your best friend. She cooked. She cleaned. She did all of those things, and she was a really good role model. But the first thing you want to do is break that character and go do something else.
I had a lot of young men say to me, “You were my crush. I would’ve taken you to the prom. You were the girl I wanted to marry.” I don’t know if that holds true today because everybody’s so individual now. But I think the character of Mary Ann would’ve been a sweetheart, and that’s kind of a nice place to be.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’ll be attending the Gilligan Island’s exhibit at the Hollywood Museum, and Mary Ann’s wardrobe will be there?
Dawn Wells: Basically it’s the shorts, the top and the gingham dress. I don’t know who could wear them now. Wow. That’s a little piece of material (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What else is going on?
Dawn Wells: I’ve got a couple of offers for a play, one for a play I dearly love. My agent’s in negotiations with that one. I like theater more than anything now. I really love the challenge of it, and I like the repetition. You can grow during a run, you know. It’s not like you can just do one take, and it’s the end of the day. So I’m always looking for a play. I’d like to play somebody really wacko like a crazy lady (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Maybe a serial killer?
Dawn Wells: I don’t know (laughs). Might be interesting. Yeah. I’m older now, too. Should send my agent out to look for something like that (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You never remarried, Dawn. Was it that you couldn’t find the right person to live with?
Dawn Wells: Well, I don’t believe in just living together. I think you either commit to it or you don’t. My husband and I were married for seven or eight years, and we got a divorce, but we were still good friends. But I was on the road all the time. I was always off doing a play, six weeks there, eight weeks there. I just never found anybody I wanted to settle down with. But I’m kind of looking around now. I don’t have children, and I’m thinking that maybe there’s a couple of old guys who lost their wives years ago (laughs). Yeah. I’m not against it.
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