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Dawn Wells embraces 'Gilligan's Island'

Sunday, December 12, 1999

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

From the year I learned to work the knob that changed the channels on my parents' trusty black and white TV, I've known exactly where I stand on the great debate of the 20th century.

My answer, then and now, is Mary Ann.

Not Ginger.


"Gilligan's Island: The E! True Hollywood Story"

When: 9 tonight on E!

Featuring: Dawn Wells, Bob Denver


Not that Ginger didn't have a certain talent for making the most of any number of evening gowns she'd packed for a three-hour tour. (And this before the weather started getting rough!) But the movie star knew she was hot. And even at 6, I knew a girl like that was trouble with a capital T and A.

But Mary Ann was every bit as pretty - and sweet to boot, a regular Betty to Ginger's Veronica.

My favorite got more fan mail, too, a little-known fact you'll find in tonight's two-hour tour of the only uncharted isle that ever mattered, "Gilligan's Island: The E! True Hollywood Story."

As Dawn Wells, who stole my heart as Mary Ann and still looks great at 60, explains, to young girls, Mary Ann was a role model.

And to young boys?

"Mary Ann would be the one that you would trust," she says. "She'd be kind to you. You could take her to the prom, or if she turned you down, she'd still be your friend, where you might be a little terrified to approach a Ginger because she was so much more worldly than you. Mary Ann was the first crush. She was the first girl you would kind of fantasize about when you were 12 or 13 because she was the good girl."

It's something that's missing from TV today, says Wells. "It's all '90210' and 'Melrose Place.' And I don't mean that the girls are all trollops, but it's a faster world. And to a young boy, that's got to be a little overwhelming."

That awkward sensation of being overwhelmed by the speed of the world is part of what makes Gilligan so popular with kids, she says - "the idea that you can be sort of a klutz and not do everything right all the time and people still love you. I think the average young kid going through puberty kind of identifies with that."

It's something kids have been identifying with for generations. "Gilligan's Island" is now the longest-running show in the history of syndicated television, available in no fewer than 30 different languages. From the day the tiny ship set ground on the shore of that uncharted desert isle in September of 1964, the show has never once been off the air.

And to think, the critics and the network absolutely hated it, said it was stupid, inane, ridiculous, destined to fail. But future "Brady Bunch" creator Sherwood Schwarz, who wrote the classic theme song, persisted until the network eventually gave it a shot.

And the rest is television history.

Although it's made perfectly clear in the E! documentary that working with Tina Louise, the movie star on screen and off, could be a taxing experience, Wells is very Mary Ann about it.

"It really wasn't difficult for me," she says. "Tina had been in several movies and everything and was quite a big sex symbol, but we were never in real competition or anything. We weren't real buddies. We didn't pal around together. But I don't think Tina and I ever had any words about anything."

While Wells, Bob Denver (Gilligan) and Russell Johnson (the Professor) see each other frequently at personal appearances, Louise (the only other surviving member of the cast) has done her best to leave the Island far behind, refusing even to appear in the made-for-TV reunion movies, "Rescue from Gilligan's Island" (1978), "The Castaways on Gilligan's Island" (1979) and "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island" (1981).

To Wells, there's nothing wrong with being seen as Mary Ann.

"I have a real feeling about this," she says. "And it's nothing to do with Ginger or Tina at all. But if you're gonna do a television series, certainly, as an actor, you don't hope it bombs. And you don't hope that people say, 'Gee, I wonder who played that character of Ginger or Mary Ann. And who was that Skipper?' You don't want people not to know who you are. So are you hoping it's going to fail? If that's the case, don't take it. Give it to an actor who wants to work."

It's something she tries to instill in her charges at Film Actors Boot Camp. She's still doing theater, too, and she hosts a fishing show that airs in Canada, "Dawn Wells' Real Adventures." You can find out more at www.dawn-wells.com. It's the site with a picture of Mary Ann charming the daylights out of a grinning Skipper and his little blushing buddy.

At least I think it's Mary Ann.

It could be Wells.

"I think Dawn Wells has seen more of the world than Mary Ann," she says, with a laugh, "but I think there's a lot of me in there. She's a nice girl. She was principled. And I think that's part of me, I hope."

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