Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Late Great Dawn Wells

Among my childhood crushes was Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island. I was far from being alone in this, as it seems as if every other man a bit older than me, my own age, or a bit younger than me had a crush on Mary Ann. In fact, I think if one did a survey of Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and older Millennials as to their childhood crushes, Mary Ann could very well come in at no. 1.  Of the cast of Gilligan's Island, it was always Dawn Wells who received the most fan mail. In polls as to whom people prefer, Mary Ann or Ginger, Mary Ann always seems to win, often by a large margin. Sadly, Dawn Wells died today, December 30 2020, from complications due to COVID-19 at the age of 82.

Dawn Wells was born on October 18 1938 in Reno, Nevada. As a young girl she wanted to be a dancer, but her plans changed after she shattered her knee. At Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri she majored in chemistry. She later studied at the University of Washington in Seattle. In 1959 she was crowned Miss Nevada and participated in the Miss America pageant.

Miss Wells later moved to Los Angeles to pursue her career in acting. She made her television debut in an episode of The Roaring 20's in 1961. She went on to become a frequent guest star on American television shows in the early Sixties. She appeared several times on Warner Bros.' various shows, including Maverick, Cheyenne, 77 Sunset Strip, Lawman, Surfiside 6, and Hawaiian Eye. She also appeared on such shows as Wagon Train, Everglades!, Tales of Wells Fargo, Boanaza, 87th Precinct, Laramie, Ripcord, The Third Man, Channing, The Joey Bishop Show, Burke's Law, and Valentine's Day. It was in 1964 that she began a three year run as Mary Ann Summers on Gilligan's Island. The show proved popular even in its initial network run, and was cancelled after three seasons only because the previously cancelled Gunsmoke had been returned to the network schedule. It would prove even more popular as a syndicated rerun, and it can still be found on local stations, cable channels, and streaming services around the country.

For the remainder of the Sixties, Dawn Wells guest starred on the shows The Invaders, The Wild Wild West, Bonanza, and The F.B.I. She made her film debut in Palm Spring Weekend (1963) and appeared in the movie The New Interns (1964).

In the Seventies, Dawn Wells reprised her role as Mary Ann on the television reunion movies Rescue from Gilligan's Island and The Castaways on Gilligan's Island. She guest starred on Vegas, Hagen, and The Love Boat. Miss Wells appeared in the movies Winterhawk (1975), The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1978), and Return to Boggy Creek (1977).

In 1982 Dawn Wells appeared on Broadway in They're Playing Our Song. She reprised her role as Mary Ann (and voiced Ginger as well) on the Saturday morning cartoon Gilligan's Planet, as well as the television reunion movie The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island and a guest appearance on the sitcom Alf. She guest starred on the shows Fantasy Island, Matt Houston, and Growing Pains. She appeared in the TV movie High School U.S.A.

In the Nineties Miss Wells reprised her role as Mary Ann on episodes of Baywatch and Herman's Head, as well as an unaired episode of Meego. She played Darlene in an episode of Roseanne that featured a Gilligan's Island parody. She guest starred on Columbo. She reprised her role as Mary Ann in the feature film Lover's Knot (1995).

In the Naughts Dawn Wells guest starred on Whatever Happened To? and Pastor Greg. She appeared in the movies Super Sucker (2002) and Forever For Now (2004). In the Teens she she appeared in the films Silent But Deadly (2012) and This is Our Time (2013). She guest starred on the TV shows The Bold and the Beautiful, Heaven's Waiting Room, See Ya, Kaplan's Korner, and the animated series The Epic Adventures of Captain Underpants.

Dawn Wells also appeared in several theatrical productions throughout the Seventies and Eighties. She appeared in national tours of Chapter Two, They're Playing Our Song, The Odd Couple, and others. Miss Wells was active in several charities, including Children's Miracle Network Hospitals, Terry Lee Wells Foundation, and the Elephant Sanctuary. For 15 years she hosted and produced the Children's Miracle Network broadcasts in Columbia, Missouri.

Dawn Wells's role as Mary Ann Summer was so iconic and such a major part of American pop culture in the late 20th Century that many often forget that she did play other roles. She was a frequent guest star on television shows in the Sixties, playing everything from a dance hall girl on Tales of Wells Fargo to a young woman whose grandfather has sheltered her from the world. Dawn Wells always gave good performances whenever she appeared on television.

Of course, it is as Mary Ann that nearly everyone will remember Dawn Wells. And it is with good reason. Never mind the fact that Mary Ann could cook, sew, and do numerous other things, never mind that she was beautiful, I think the appeal of Mary Ann was that she was sweet, warm-hearted, honest, and loyal. One never had to worry about her being rude, and if one were lucky enough to win her heart, they knew she would never stray. Mary Ann embodied the qualities that almost everyone would like to find in a man or woman.

If Dawn Wells did such a good job of playing Mary Ann, it is perhaps because she was very much like the character. Not only did many of my fellow classic movie and television fans get to meet her, so did many people around mid-Missouri, including my own sister (she kind of rubbed in, given I have had a crush on Mary Ann since I was a kid). According to everyone, Dawn Wells was exactly what you would expect her to be: sweet, gracious, charming, considerate, and down-to-earth. If so many of us were just a little bit in love with Dawn Wells, it is not because she played Mary Ann, but because she was the warm, thoughtful girl-next-door in real life as well.

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