Immortalized in American popular culture as the epitome of small town wholesomeness after playing shipwrecked farm girl Mary Ann Summers for three years on the popular sitcom "Gilligan's Island" (CBS, 1964-1967), Dawn Wells was an entertainment industry lifer who continued to work for 50 years. The great-granddaughter of an old West stagecoach driver and first-born child of a Las Vegas real estate mogul, Wells ditched her pre-med studies at Missouri's Stevens College when she discovered the campus drama department. While obtaining a theatre degree at the University of Washington in Seattle, Wells won the 1959 Miss Nevada competition. Denied the Miss America crown in 1960, the diminutive but determined Hollywood hopeful headed west, securing paying work in less than two months. A cultural icon by the age of 30, Wells returned to the role of her lifetime 10 years after the cancellation of "Gilligan's Island" for a run of made-for-TV reunion movies. A vivacious entrepreneur, spokesperson, acting coach, film festival founder and philanthropist, not even a 2007 arrest for marijuana possession could tarnish Dawn Wells' enduring reputation as the ultimate girl next door.
Dawn Elberta Wells was born in Reno, NV on Oct. 18, 1938, the first child of Joe and Betty Wells. Starting out as a logger in his native Stockton, CA, Joe Wells later parlayed a small trucking business into a real estate empire; in 1961, he became co-owner of the Las Vegas Thunderbird Hotel and served for several years as its general manager. Although her first ambition was to be a professional ballerina, trick knees prevented Dawn Wells from realizing that dream. An honor roll student at Reno High School, she entered Stephens College in Columbia, MO, with an aim to study medicine but instead earned an associates degree in drama. While pursuing a bachelor's degree in theatre at Seattle's University of Washington, Wells competed in the 1959 Miss Nevada competition. Winning that title, she continued to the 40th Royal Reunion Miss America pageant in 1960, whose crown went to Miss Michigan, Nancy Fleming.
Relocated to Hollywood with the hope of finding acting work, Wells had the uncommon good fortune to score both an agent and her first paying job within six weeks. Married to talent agent Larry Rosen in 1962, she enjoyed guest appearances on a number of popular weekly series from the Warner Brothers television arm, including "Maverick" (ABC, 1957-1962), "77 Sunset Strip" (ABC, 1958-1964), "Hawaiian Eye" (ABC, 1959-1963) and "Wagon Train" (NBC/ABC, 1957-1965). Wells made her feature film debut with a walk-on in Warners' "Palm Springs Weekend" (1963), a spring break comedy patterned after the popular teen film "Where the Boys Are" (1960) and "Beach Party" (1963). She was given slightly more to do in "The New Interns" (1964), a sequel to the hospital melodrama "The Interns" (1962), which had turned a tidy profit for Columbia Pictures two years earlier.
When Wells auditioned in 1964 for a part on the CBS sitcom "Gilligan's Island," the manic misadventures of seven storm-tossed castaways on an uncharted South Seas atoll, the role of pig-tailed Kansas farm girl Mary Ann Summers all but belonged to promising and very buxom talent Raquel Welch. In the eyes of series creator Sherwood Schwartz, the more accessible Wells made a better contrast with Tina Louise, cast as a sultry Hollywood starlet, Ginger Grant. Although Mary Ann was considered a lesser character - to the extent that she remained unidentified in the opening credits throughout the first season - it was Wells who received the most fan mail. Her husband Larry Rosen had also brokered a lucrative backend deal, which ensured the actress residual payments should the program go into syndication. Granted without objection by the series producers, who could not have anticipated the enduring popularity of "Gilligan's Island," that contract stipulation would make Dawn Wells a millionaire.
While the critical response to the lowbrow slapstick comedy of "Gilligan's Island" was largely negative in the aftermath of its September 1964 premiere, the series rose swiftly from the Top 20 shows in the Nielson ratings to the Top 10. Embarrassed by the flood of critical barbs which wounded his pride and made him the butt of jokes within his elite social circle, CBS Chairman William Paley attempted to sabotage "Gilligan's Island" by allowing it to be bumped from its initial time slot for its second season and then again as it sailed into its third year. Despite the schedule shuffling, "Gilligan's Island" remained a crowd pleaser right up until the network made the decision to cancel it in the spring of 1967 due to a scheduling conflict with the long-running "Gunsmoke" (1955-1975) and the new detective series "Mannix" (1967-1975).
In May 1967, Wells' father Joe died of a heart ailment at age 51. That same year, Wells divorced Larry Rosen and never remarried. She rode out the decade with charming guest appearances on "The Invaders" (ABC, 1967-68), "The FBI" (ABC, 1965-1974), "Bonanza" (NBC, 1959-1973) and "Wild Wild West" (1965-69) before making the decision to leave Hollywood altogether. Desiring a wider diversity of roles that only live theatre could offer, Wells took a seeming step backward to star in a production of Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park" in Jacksonville, FL. In the mid-1970s, she also began a brief association with B-movie maker Charles B. Pierce, lending name value to the frontier tale "Winterhawk" (1975) and the proto-slasher "The Town that Dreaded Sundown" (1976), in which Wells' minor character, a Texarkana housewife, survives a vicious attack at the hands of a masked psychopath to emerge as something like an early "final girl."
Wells would reunite with her "Gilligan's Island" cast members (minus an AWOL Tina Louise) for a trio of made-for-TV movies. The castaways' ever more improbable adventures were carried forward with "Rescue from Gilligan's Island" (CBS, 1978), "The Castaways on Gilligan's Island" (1979), and finally "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island" (1981), featuring a pre-comeback Martin Landau as a James Bond-style villain and the mechanical shark from "Jaws" (1975). Wells reprised her career-defining role as a voice actor on the animated "Gilligan's Planet" (CBS, 1982-83) and in fantasy moments on episodes of "ALF" (NBC, 1986-1990), "Baywatch" (NBC, 1989-2001) and "Herman's Head" (Fox, 1991-94). In later years, she spoofed Mary Ann in a national TV Spot for Western Union. Wells also worked as a television producer and a university professor in addition to owning her own clothing and cosmetics businesses.
Dawn Wells received some unwanted publicity in October 2007 when she was pulled over by the Idaho State Police for driving erratically. Explaining to the officers that she was returning from a surprise birthday party and that she was attempting to tune her car radio at the moment she was spotted weaving between lanes, Wells was discovered to be in possession of drug paraphernalia and a controlled substance believed to be marijuana. Failing a sobriety test, the actress-entrepreneur was taken into custody; her mug shot was distributed widely on the Internet. After a third party stepped forward to accept responsibility for the contraband, Wells was allowed a plea bargain to the lesser charge of reckless driving. The incident cost Wells a speaking engagement at a Girl Scouts of America fundraiser, but failed to tarnish her longstanding title as spokeswoman for Idaho Potatoes and one of the more wholesome TV personalities of all time.
By Richard Harland Smith