Mary Ann 'born' at Stephens, Wells says
Independent. Confident. A friend to the underdog.
That’s how Stephens students describe the role of Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island. And they could just as well be talking about Dawn Wells.
“The essence of Mary Ann came from Dawn, and the essence of Dawn came from Stephens College,” Wells said during a visit to campus this week.
Wells—an alumna best known for her playing the stunning and friendly brunette stranded on the island—is working on a book and documentary for the 50th anniversary of Gilligan’s Island next year. During her visit to campus, Wells asked students to share their opinions of the show and Mary Ann’s character. One student described her as the opposite of a Pollyanna, being a strong character who held fast to her values.
Wells originally came to Stephens for pre-medical studies. Her fate changed when a knee injury forced her out of a physical education class and into a theatre elective, and she continued both pre-med and theatre studies at the University of Washington.
When she first inquired about the role of Mary Ann, some feared she was too smart to play the character. Wells is quick to say that Mary Ann was smart. But she also knew from where the concern came — the head of Warner Brothers Studios, Jack Warner, had earlier noted that his interview with Wells wasn’t like interviews with wannabe starlets. She was confident and could carry on a serious conversation. And in the end, Wells landed the role, beating out some 300 women who auditioned, including Raquel Welch.
In reality, Mary Ann wasn’t much of a character on paper. Unlike others in the show—the millionaires, the captain, the professor—Mary Ann was simply described as a girl from Kansas without background or direction on what type of person she would be. That let Wells inject her own personality, as well as style. The iconic pigtails and gingham? Her ideas.
Gilligan’s Island lasted 98 episodes, or three seasons at the time (she’s quick to tell you in today’s TV market, that’s more like five years). But it’s never been off the air, exposing each new generation to its magic through syndication and reruns. Wells credits the fact it’s on an island with no vehicles, streetscapes or technology to date it, which is why it’s been able to stand the test of time. But the premise is also timeless, and perhaps more relevant to today’s society than ever, she said.
“Seven misfits on an island trying to get along? That’s the world right now,” she said.
Although Wells admits she might have liked to be have been known for playing a more serious character, she is also proud of the moral compass Mary Ann became. The world needs more Mary Anns, she said, telling students that “good girls always finish first.”