By Bob Rich
Dawn Wells is a highly accomplished actress whose career in entertainment includes 150 television productions, seven motion pictures and 60 plays.
Originally from Reno, Nevada, Wells represented Nevada in the Miss America pageant in 1959. Right after graduating from Stephens College and the University of Washington, she became a Hollywood success starring in TV shows such as 77 Sunset Strip, Bonanza and Hawaiian Eye. She soon won her most acclaimed role as Mary Ann Summers on TV’s Gilligan’s Island, selected from 350 actresses competing for the part, including Raquel Welch. She has had a prolific career in entertainment that continues to this day.
I had a delightful interview with Wells which lasted nearly two-and-a-half hours. Afterwards, she and her manager were kind enough to drive me home, which took about a half hour. So my time with Wells really was “a three-hour tour.”
Why does the character of Mary Ann resonate with so many people?
You’d be happy to have her as your sister or daughter. You’d be happy to go out with her. She was honest. Cute enough. For a young man, Mary Ann would have been your first crush. If a young boy fell for Mary Ann, he had good taste. He wanted the nice girl. She would have been your friend too. Not high maintenance. I was raised a ‘Mary Ann.’ I know that girl. When we made the show, there was no real description for Mary Ann except that she was a farm girl from Kansas. She was the moral compass. She wanted to make sure everybody got along.
In your YouTube comedy show, She’s Still on That Freakin’ Island, you reprise your role as Mary Ann, and you have a new friend on that familiar island. It’s a witty production. There’s an affection for Gilligan’s Island that shines through.
Isn’t that fun? Just three or four of us put it together. I’m dying to do the next couple of them.
Your new situation comedy, Life Interrupted, is a very enjoyable ensemble show. Everyone in the cast has a distinct personality, like in Gilligan’s Island. What are the benefits of being in a great ensemble cast?
That’s magic and that’s the fun of acting. It’s like when you were a little kid. Didn’t you play hide and seek, or games with good guys and bad guys? It’s the same thing except it’s beautifully written and well directed and cast well. I don’t think you can do a series week after week without part of yourself being there in your character.
Jim Backus, who played Mr. Howell on Gilligan’s Island, was brilliant when he’d come up with his lines. Russell, who played the Professor, was extremely smart. Alan, who played the Skipper, was always smiling, always good with the crew. The only one who was not anything like his character was Gilligan, Bob Denver – he was really smart. A comic genius. He was a very gentle man. He was lovely. I remember when Bob’s son, Patrick, was about five, and I said that Patrick could spend the weekend with me. As we got ready to leave, Bob said to him, “Patrick come here.” Bob got down on his knees and said, “Now, Patrick, give Mary Ann lots of love.” Not, “Mind your manners.” But, “Give Mary Ann lots of love.”
Please share with us about other comedy shows you’ve done.
I’ve done every part in Steel Magnolias. I’ve done every Neil Simon play – Chapter Two, Barefoot in the Park. I’d like to do something on Broadway, a real meaty dramatic role. A challenging role. We’re looking at Driving Miss Daisy.
What are some other accomplishments in your life and career that you are proud of?
My mother took wonderful care of me, and when she was aging and frail, I took care of her. I’m single now, but I was married for seven years, got divorced, and I took care of him when he had leukemia. I wrote a book. I wrote a cookbook. I was in a musical! I’m the chairman of a family foundation in Reno. In 2014, we opened a children’s museum – the Terry Lee Wells Discovery Museum – in downtown Reno. It brought some art to the city. It brought some goodness and education. I’m on the board of the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. They take retired elephants from the circus and let them roam. Also, the film Winterhawk. I narrated it. Female narration of a movie is very rare. It was shot on location, way up in the Rocky Mountains in 10 feet of snow. It’s beautiful.
Tell us any advice you or Mary Ann might have for someone who wants to get better at overcoming adversity in life.
Attitude is a lot of it. How you handle disappointments and success. When I did the Children’s Miracle Network Telethon for 15 years, to see these little children that can’t walk, with the I.V. and everything, with their spirit and their faith and their smiles. My best friend, Gail, her son Jimmy has a handicap, but she treated him like he didn’t have it. She treated him like a human being. Now, he runs a business.
You can not have any money and you can still have a house full of love. I was loved at home. I went to church, got good grades. How you cope with adversity is really who you are. It’ll either knock you down or make you stronger. That’s Mary Ann. She would bring the best out of everybody.
You are in charge of your happiness. The only thing that’s going to stop that is health. If you’re going through something terminal, then that’s tough. Faith takes over. Faith is always there, but you don’t call on it until you need it.
There is a very nice quote in your book ‘What Would Mary Ann Do?’ that reads, “Time pays you back if you have class.”
We could use manners today. We could use grace, kindness, appreciation.
How do you hope your book can inspire and encourage people?
Both Dawn and Mary Ann have a healthy perspective on life. I was raised with Mary Ann values. I think the world needs them. We need to simplify good from bad, right from wrong, love as a substitute for hate. We need to be open, curious, forgiving and to have an interest in the world and in people.
The new audio edition of Dawn Wells’ popular book “What Would Mary Ann Do?: A Guide to Life” is now available. Visit Amazon.com and DawnWells.com for details.
Bob Rich has authored over 50 short stories, often in the style of Magic Realism. His science fiction/fantasy mini-novel “Emily Blue and the Star on the Moon” was just released. The mini-novel promotes the charitable work of the Grossman Burn Foundation. Visit TheForeignFilms.com for details.