Here's Exhibit A of making lemonade out of lemons. Dawn
Wells is most widely known for a role she played almost 50 years
ago. As Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island, she won audiences'
hearts and minds, but the critics were less than kind to the series.
They thought it was as low as television could possibly sink. Little
did they know.
The series ran on CBS for three years, and then forever in
reruns, cable, DVD, Me TV and Hulu. Three generations later, Dawn is
still one of the most recognizable faces in the world (and what a
In the decades since the series' cancellation in 1967, she
gathered no moss. She returned to her first love, theater, and kept
herself busy and happy on stage, along with philanthropic pursuits
that have helped scores of people in a number of loving and kind
Bitter about typecasting? Not on your life. She's
young-minded but old school, grateful for the millions of people who
adore her. For her, Gilligan is not off limits.
Born and raised in Reno, Nevada, Dawn was a Miss America
contestant and a chemistry major in college, heading for med school.
More surprises awaited us in our awesome interview:
Let's start with
the most pressing question in humankind: Ginger or Mary Ann?
Someone said to me, how do you feel about all those Ginger
vs. Mary Ann polls? I said, "I always win them!" I embrace it!
Has your feeling
Gilligan's Island changed in the decades since its original
It's shown all over the world, and you can understand that.
When you actually stop and think about it, yeah, it really is
stupid, but yet they really did have something. I thought it was
corny when I was doing it, but I recently saw it and went, "This is
What was your
acting career like?
I had been put under option contract for Warner Brothers
when I first came to Los Angeles. I did all of their TV shows, one
after the other. They didn't pick up the contract, but I had that
Were you offered
the part of Mary Ann, or did you have to audition?
I was just a working actress, but I was auditioning for the
[character]. There were 300 other women. And I just auditioned like
anybody else. [Series producer] Sherwood Schwartz and I had a
meeting and we laughed and talked about a lot of stuff. At first,
they thought I was too smart to play Mary Ann. So they tested me.
Mary Ann was just a girl from Kansas. There was no other
description. She wasn't a schoolteacher. She wasn't a secretary. We
didn't know what she was. The actress who was going to come into
that role had to bring what she was, to give dimension to that
character. I really think that Sherwood had a different image in
mind, like the Donna Douglas [The Beverly Hillbillies' Elly
Mae]/Petticoat Junction ingénue, rather than the strength
Mary Ann had. I think we were all perfectly cast, but I think I
changed his mind a little.
Was your first
reaction to the script, "What is this?"
I don't think I really analyzed it. If you talk about
Star Trek, who would believe that? I know what the press said:
they said it was the stupidest show ever and it wouldn't last more
than 20 minutes. I think the cast and the crew were fabulous, but I
don't think I would have watched it.
Where were you
born and raised?
generation. My grandfather drove a stagecoach. There was less going
on there. I didn't want to live at home and go to college like I was
going to high school. I wanted to learn more, see more.
Growing up, who
were your acting influences?
I hate to tell you, not many people. I was a chemistry
major moving on to become a pediatrician. I look back, of course, to
Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis. Now we're looking at Meryl Streep
and Cate Blanchett. I was into the real acting as opposed to the
pretty face. That was a big deal when I was growing up. We had the
You grew up in
Nevada. What was your childhood like?
I wanted to be a ballerina when I was a kid because I loved
dance, and because of my bad knees, I could never play a sport.
Sometimes I couldn't sit down without my knees dislocating. I was a
debater in high school. It wasn't my passion to become an actress. I
went to a woman's college and I was an only child. I wanted to get
away from home. I was a chemistry major. I loved all the science. I
couldn't take anything but rowing and archery for physical education
because of my knees. So I took a theater course. And I loved it. So
I co-majored in science and theater.
Then you entered
the Miss America pageant!
Yes, I was asked to enter the Miss America pageant as Miss
Nevada. And I thought, well, that's stupid. I'm 5'4". But I thought,
if you're majoring in theater, let's see if you can do a scene in
front of all of those people. I never thought that I could win, but
it gave me the confidence that I could do it.
What was that
I didn't feel it was a competition between the girls. It
was a television show they were putting on. It was very well
chaperoned. We couldn't even say hello to the bellboy. We couldn't
talk to any man. We had a chaperone with us at all times. You're on
your very best behavior. It's all different now. I knew I wasn't
going to win because I was short and everybody else had all this
talent and I did Shakespeare. But it was a great experience. It
wasn't a beauty pageant. It was girls competing for scholarships.
America, it was goodbye academia and hello, Hollywood?
When I graduated [college], I told myself that I would give
myself one year. And if I don't go to work, I'll go back to med
school. And I went to work right away, from the moment I hit LA. I
auditioned for a play with Mercedes McCambridge and got the role. So
I got my Equity card within six or eight weeks.
So theater was
your first acting passion?
When [Gilligan's Island] went off the air, I went
right back to stage. I was well trained as a stage actress. [On TV,]
I was a type. I didn't want to play this little farm girl the rest
of my life. I grew as an actress. That's why I went back to stage. I
felt I would have more of an opportunity to play more characters
with depth. Because of my typecasting, I don't ever want to play
that sweet little thing. I wanted to show that I could do a
Katherine Hepburn role. I wanted the challenge, the creativity. And
not be so typecast. And I thought, the way to do that is to go back
to the stage.
You sure made
that happen! You recently appeared in The Vagina Monologues!
I loved the camaraderie of the actors on stage and it was
different every night. I'm also very good at Neil Simon. I've done a
musical and I don't carry a tune. I did a national tour of
They're Playing Our Song. I'm just trying to grow. I think lots
of actors have experiences that they bring to what they are doing.
What is it about
the simple character of Mary Ann that connects so deeply with
Mary Ann connects with people in a way that's pretty basic.
And I think they give that back to me when they meet me. It's an
exchange of love between people. I received a letter from a young
boy who told me he was so abused and beaten up by his family, and
Gilligan's Island gave him sanity and kept him going. When you
are a party to that, it kind of gives me tears. I didn't like the
role, but I had a part in maybe nurturing in a positive way. It's
not an ego boost; it's a heartfelt thought.
been gracious about the character and had no problem being connected
to her. People sense that positive energy in you.
I'm an optimist. What you see is what you get. That's who I
am. My family used to say, "you get more with honey than you do with
I look at the
world in a positive way. I don't believe in depression. I think it's
I was raised well. I had a wonderful mother and father. I'm
curious about life. There are so many things that I want to see and
do. I'm a very positive person. I'm very happy to be alive. Not that
everything is wonderful in my life, but life is not wonderful all
the time anyway.
dedicated much of your life to philanthropic pursuits.
That comes from my mom. My mom was a giver too. With The
Children's Miracle Network, I co-hosted it and co-produced it for 20
years. I feel that we're not just here for ourselves. In many ways
you can give back. It's not all just about you.
Are you well
connected to the digital age?
My [business] partner gave me an iPad and said, "you've got
to get with this, Dawn!" Now I'm really learning it. I've been on
Facebook the last six or eight months. I get feedback from the
people who follow me. You don't get that anywhere else. I don't type
very well, but I'm getting into it. I'm trying.
What were some of
Gilligan's Island moments?
We always liked the dream sequences. Being a cockney girl
was kind of fun. The plots were incredibly stupid, but that makes me
laugh. The entire time the show was on, I thought, 'this is kind of
corny,' but you don't have time to think about it and you don't have
time to watch the other shows because you're working. But now the
show is on Me-TV, and I thought, "this is funny!" How we're all so
larger than life, it is funny.
You claim you
don't sing, but I remember you singing in one or two episodes of the
Everybody loves the Honeybees episode, but that wasn't me
singing, you know. They dubbed my voice. In one of the first
episodes we did, we were singing "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow."
After Sherwood heard me sing, he said, "just mouth the words."
Can the show have
any relevance today?
Gilligan's Island was seven people from different walks of life trying to
get along. Now, it's a whole world trying to do that. And with all
the technical stuff that is going on, you can't monitor anything.
Everything is game. I'm not a mom, but Mary Ann really was the moral
compass of the island. Even as silly as the show is, there is
kindness and caring there. It's a tough world right now, but there
is still a lot of good out there.
acknowledge the irony of Mary Ann coming from Reno, Nevada, don't
Mary Ann came from the divorce capital of the world, legal
prostitution and gambling. What a great background for Mary Ann.
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