Dawn Elberta Wells, 82, the actress best known for her role as the sweet farm girl Mary Ann Summers on the TV series “Gilligan’s Island,” died Dec. 30 of complications of COVID-19.
Wells was a 1956 graduate of Reno High School and a former Miss Nevada who starred in 98 episodes of the TV comedy from 1964 to 1967. She performed in more than 150 television programs and movies and headlined in more than 60 theatrical productions in her career. Wells traveled the globe, but often returned to the Silver State, where her roots run deep and were never forgotten.
“Her family goes way back in the old Italian section of Reno,” said Pat Ferraro Klos, a retired Reno teacher and founding president of the Reno Historic Preservation Society. “…She was a big part of my childhood.”
Reno High School graduate
Wells and Klos met in the third grade at McKinley Park Elementary School and were best friends through the 12th grade at Reno High School. The pair shared the same birthday, Oct. 18, 1938, and their mothers were at Saint Mary’s Hospital giving birth the same day. “(Oct. 18) was also her mom’s birthday,” Klos remembered, “and we had great parties every year.”
Klos and Wells were bridesmaids at each other’s weddings. Wells married Larry Rosen, a talent agent, in 1962, when she was already a well-known face on TV (the couple divorced in 1967). “She could have had (Hollywood people) as her bridesmaids, but she chose her friends from high school and college because she loved her roots,” Klos said. “She was never snobbish and never tried to one-up anybody… She came to every class reunion and never forgot her old friends.”
Wells was on the board of the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum in downtown Reno (named for her cousin), started a clothing business, helped raise money for many charities and founded a drama “boot camp” program in Idaho. At age 71, she attended the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert.
A ‘3-hour tour’ lasts 3 seasons
She is most remembered as the wholesome girl-next-door character among the seven stranded castaways on a fictional desert island, a role she said had a connection with her upbringing in Reno.
“I was very much raised like a Mary Ann,” Wells said in an interview with the Reno News and Review in 2003. “I came from a very work-ethic-oriented family. All of the stuff that Mary Ann stands for, but Mary Ann was very inexperienced. All I can say is that when I went away to college, I couldn’t understand why everything wasn’t open 24 hours. I [moved] from Reno to Missouri, which was like going to Kansas (from Oz). The worldliness of growing up in Reno was definitely not a part of Mary Ann.”
“Gilligan’s Island” ran for three seasons. The cast also included Bob Denver as the hapless Gilligan, Alan Hale Jr. as The Skipper and Tina Louise as movie star Ginger, a glamorous contrast to Wells’ more down-to-earth Mary Ann character. “America’s favorite castaway … passed peacefully this morning, in no pain as a result of complications due to Covid,” in Los Angeles, her publicist wrote on Dec. 30.
She wanted to be a doctor
Wells often told interviewers that she had a happy childhood in the Biggest Little City, where she enjoyed gardening and riding horses. At Reno High School, Wells was the class treasurer, president of the debate team and made the honor roll.
She left Reno to attend Stephens College in Columbia, Mo, where she studied chemistry and planned to become a pediatric surgeon. She joined the school’s drama club, discovered her love for acting and transferred to the University of Washington, where she graduated with a degree in theatre
The Miss Nevada title
She was crowned Miss Nevada in 1959. “I thought it would be fun to get up in front of an audience and do a dramatic scene for the contest but never thought I would win because I was so tiny and short,” she told interviewer Nick Thomas in 2014. “But I won! After graduating, I told myself I would give acting a chance for one year and if it was not successful, would go back to medicine.”
She didn’t capture the Miss America title, but she was noticed. Hollywood beckoned. She played guest characters on popular 1960s TV shows including the Nevada-centric “Bonanza” (twice), “Maverick,” and “77 Sunset Strip” before producers of “Gilligan’s Island” selected her from a field of 350 hopefuls for the role of Mary Ann.
Author of two books
She also appeared as a guest star on “Wagon Train,” “Tales of Wells Fargo,” “Burke’s Law,” “ALF,” “Roseanne” and many other television shows. Her big-screen credits include “Winterhawk,” “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” “Return to Boggy Creek,” and “Soulmates, Forever for Now.”
In 1993, Wells published “Mary Ann’s Gilligan’s Island Cookbook” with co-writers Ken Beck and Jim Clark, including a foreword by Bob Denver.
In 2014, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of “Gilligan’s Island,” Wells penned “What Would Mary Ann Do? A Guide to Life,” co-written with Steve Stinson.
“We love Mary Ann because she is the future, the hope of our world. The youngest of the castaways, Mary Ann has her entire life in front of her. Watching her unfailing good cheer, her optimism is never in question. We love her because we need her emotional support and her belief that all will turn out well … We love Mary Ann because of Dawn Wells.”– Russell Johnson, in his introduction to “What Would Mary Ann Do?: A Guide to Life.”
Founding a company
Wells started “Wishing Wells Collections,” a company that made clothing for people with limited mobility. She also was the founder of the Idaho Film and Television Institute, which she described as a “boot camp” for aspiring actors, and organized SpudFest, a regional annual family movie festival in Idaho.
The actress kept working on occasional television shows and stage productions – including touring with “The Vagina Monologues” in 2003, and on Broadway in Nora Ephron’s “Love, Loss and What I Wore” in 2009. Klos, who went to New York to visit Wells while she was on Broadway, said her friend was always working and always in demand as an actor.
“She told me the reason she got so many parts wasn’t because she was a great actress,” Klos said. “She said it was because she was a really hard worker who always knew her lines, always showed up and was never late.”
Like her character on that lost island, she “was a survivor,” Wells often told interviewers.
Mary Ann at Burning Man
In 2010, at age 71, she attended the Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. At the time, she told Reno News & Review reporter Dennis Myers that she was surprised at what she found there.
“You hear all these rumors that, you know — Woodstock. … You hear all about it and I had no idea what to expect because I didn’t even know much about it until about a year ago. And I was so blown away by what they’ve done in the community with their solar art,” she said.
But what impressed her most was the tone of the event—“the politeness of everybody, the kindness, the graciousness of everybody”—which she said was a tonic to the often harsh realities of the outside world.
“The people were gentle and friendly. I didn’t see any fighting. I didn’t see any drunks. … I didn’t see anybody—‘Get out of my way’—or any of that kind of thing when you’ve got 45 or 50,000 people there all crowded together… To see this peaceful celebration was touching,” Wells told Myers.
Fans came through for her
A year later, Wells stood amid a crowd of waiting children at the opening of the Discovery Museum and led the chant of “open the doors.” In 2018, she suffered a fall and needed help paying for two months of hospital rehabilitation. A friend started a GOFundMe page and she was shocked when the effort raised $197,000 within a month.
“I am amazed at the kindness and affection I have received,” she told Fox News. “I don’t know how this happened. I thought I was taking all the proper steps to ensure my golden years. Now, here I am, no family, no husband, no kids and no money.”
Klos said Wells was a soft touch when it came to helping others. “If anything, she was too generous with people who got close to her,” she said.
Sweeter than ‘Ginger’
In her book, Wells wrote about developing the character of Mary Ann, who was simply described as a “Kansas farm girl” in the original scripts:
“Every character on Gilligan’s Island was given a broad ‘stock’ comedy role to fill — captain, mate, wealthy man, wealthy wife, professor, movie star — except me… I had to fill in the blanks. So, from the get-go, the Mary Ann character was different. She wasn’t a Hollywood creation. She was molded by me, from me… the core of Mary Ann is really me. I mean, I built her from scratch … if you play a character long enough on stage or screen, I think your true self shows through.”