Dawn Wells, who parlayed her girl-next-door charm into enduring TV fame as the sweet-natured castaway Mary Ann on the classic 1960s sitcom Gilligan’s Island, died on Wednesday at age 82, her publicist said.
Wells, who won the title of Miss Nevada in 1959 and competed in the Miss America contest, died from complications of COVID-19, publicist Harlan Boll said in a statement.
Born in the gambling city of Reno, Wells played Kansas farm girl Mary Ann Summers, one of seven castaways stranded after their boat, the S.S. Minnow, became battered in a storm during what was supposed to be a three-hour tour from Hawaii.
Wells beat out actresses including Raquel Welch for her role.
Gilligan’s Island ran for three seasons from 1964-67.
The death of Wells leaves Tina Louise, 86, the sole survivor of these cast members.
The 98 episodes invariably involved their efforts in vain to get off the island, even as a parade of guest stars dropped in and had no trouble getting out.
The show drew the wrath of critics but its innocent fun caught on with viewers at a tumultuous time in America after the assassination of a president, the rise of the civil rights movement and the escalation of the Vietnam War.
Wells, playing a cheerful brunette Midwestern farm girl, appeared in the series wearing short shorts, midriff tops and pigtails.
Louise, playing a buxom red-headed sensation akin to Marilyn Monroe, wore slinky, form-fitting dresses. The two inspired what became an enduring pop culture question for men: Ginger or Mary Ann?
Wells said that question was the most common topic mentioned to her by fans.
“Mostly they’ll pick a favourite, Ginger or Mary Ann. For some reason, they feel they have to make a choice,” Wells told Forbes magazine in 2016.
Gilligan’s Island was cancelled by network executives despite respectable ratings, then became ubiquitous in syndicated reruns.
“A misconception is that we must be wealthy, rolling in the dough, because we got residuals. We didn’t really get a dime,” Wells told Forbes.
Wells said she was paid $750 a week, adding, “Sherwood Schwartz, our producer, reportedly made $90 million on the reruns alone.”
In light of the show’s steady popularity in the 1970s, three made-for-TV movies were made with progressively far-fetched plots involving Soviet satellites and visiting basketball players.
Wells also lent her voice to the animated Gilligan’s Planet in 1982, in which the castaways become stranded on a far-away planet.
Wells also capitalised on her fame by writing Mary Ann’s Gilligan’s Island Cookbook, and later, What Would Mary Ann Do? A Guide to Life.
Wells was born on October 18, 1938, in Reno, and studied theatre at the University of Washington.
She headed to Hollywood after her beauty pageant success.
She embraced her pop culture status but said there was more to her than just being Mary Ann.
“I’m deeper, smarter, more ambitious, funnier. I think if you meet me for 15 minutes, there is nothing you won’t know: what you see is what you get,” she told Forbes.