Dawn Elberta Wells was born on October 18, 1938, in Reno, Nevada. Dawn Wells has lived such a full, rich, idyllic life, it is a bit ironic that her very first dream was probably the only one she never achieved. "I wanted to be a ballerina more than anything," she says, "(but) I couldn't get 15 inch thighs and grow another five or six inches. And my knees started dislocating."
Nonetheless, Dawn had a very happy childhood, she rode horses, and her mother grew the family's own fruits and vegetables. She attending Reno High School where she was class treasurer, president of the debate team, and an honor roll student. After high school, Dawn enrolled at Stephens College in Missouri, where she studied chemistry. But after taking a theater course, Dawn got the acting bug and transferred to the University of Washington, where they had a good theater department.
A knockout, Dawn also entered and won the Miss Nevada beauty pageant in 1959. She competed in the Miss America pageant in 1960, in which (hard to believe) she did not win. Although she didn't win, the contest paid for Dawn's last two years in college.
After graduating, Dawn went to Hollywood to attempt a career in show business. She got both her first agent and her first acting job within six weeks. Dawn was to marry her agent Larry Rosen in 1962. Beautiful, eager, and talented, Dawn got many guest starring roles in tv series including '77 Sunset Strip, Wagon Train, Maverick, and Bonanza.
In 1964, Dawn auditioned for a new show on the CBS schedule called Gilligan's Island. She met with the show's creator, Sherwood Schwartz, where the two chatted about the character she was up for- Mary Ann Summers, a farm girl from Kansas (based on Judy Garland's "Dorothy" character in The Wizard of Oz.)
Before officially testing for the role, her agent/husband Larry called and asked how Sherwood liked her. He was told, "She's too smart to play Mary Ann," to which he replied, "She can play dumb."
When Dawn heard of this conversation, she quickly disagreed. "Mary Ann's not dumb," she declared, "She's not very experienced, she's kind of naive, but she's not dumb." It was as if she already fully understood the character she was to make immortal, before she even had the role.
Trivia: Another young, beautiful actress named Raquel Welch was also up for for the Mary Ann role.
Dawn did finally test and was given the part, at $1,600 a week. According to Dawn, "CBS (originally) hated the show" and Sherwood Schwartz "was sure it wouldn't go into a second season."
Dawn credits the incredible success of Gilligan's Island to a few factors. "We had fun," she says, "and the chemistry was perfect. Half of it was the casting. Very good casting."
Dawn's Mary Ann became famous and beloved (by the show's male viewers) for her short shorts. She actually helped design them. In the show's early days, Dawn was not allowed to show her belly button (a full year before Barbara Eden faced the same censorship of the times in I Dream of Jeannie). This rather prudish attitude had loosened up by 1966, and Mary Ann's navel was actually seen on camera on more than one occasion.
In the show's first season, Dawn and co-star Russell Johnson were not even considered important enough to have their names mentioned in the show's theme song and were famously immortalized at the song's conclusion as "the rest." But the show's star Bob Denver quickly put the kibosh on this and by season two, both "the Professor" (Johnson) and "Mary Ann" were included. (Until Johnson's death, both of the two would always sign their Christmas and birthday cards to each other "Love, the rest.")
Dawn was always friendly and easy to get along with, at least for five of her six fellow cast members. Although on the show she was always paired up with fellow cast member Tina Louise, the two never had a very close relationship off-camera. On the show, Tina portrayed the man-hungry sexpot and ultra-glamorous movie star, Ginger Grant. Her character was almost a direct dichotomy to Dawn's wholesome "girl next door" Mary Ann.
The two have always had an off-screen relationship almost mirroring the dichotomy between their two characters. According to Tina: "We're two different people. Dawn was all about pleasing everybody."
Not disagreeing with Tina's evaluation, Dawn now says she and Tina have "not been in contact. She wants to distance herself from the show." But Dawn graciously adds: "She was perfect for the role" and "I learned so many things from her."
The legendary Ginger vs. Mary Ann controversy has now persisted among men the world over for over half a century. All men's tastes differ, but in every poll ever taken, Mary Ann has been chosen by guys over Ginger.
Dawn also received the more fan mail than Tina (interestingly, Dawn actually received the most fan mail of any Gilligan's island cast member). According to CBS, Tina Louise's fan mail all came from men, whereas Dawn's came from "women, children, teenagers, and men."
Dawn recalled each of her other five fellow Gilligan's Island cast members:
Bob Denver (Gilligan): "You'd think he's kind of a buffoon. He's not. He was very, very, very smart."
Alan Hale Jr. (the Skipper): "He was the same size as my father. Every time he'd say 'Hi honey' and pick me up and hug me, he was like my Dad."
Jim Backus (Mr. Howell): "He was cheap... cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap." Dawn recalled how she, Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer, who played Mrs. Howell, would go out to lunch together every day, and each day, at the end of their meal, Backus would claim "I forgot my wallet," forcing Natalie to pick up his tab. At the end of the year's filming, Natalie went over to Backus and presented him with a bill for $340 to cover his "freebies."
Russell Johnson (the Professor): "He had the best sense of humor. He was the funniest and he was a hunk." She added about her special friend: "He was a very handsome, good man. I miss him.… If [during the show's run] either of us had been single or both of us had been single, there would have been some chemistry."
Unlike her cool relationship with Tina Louise, Dawn and Natalie Schafer developed an extremely close friendship, both during the show's run and in the years after. Dawn actually housed Natalie Schafer in her last years and was her caregiver. It is widely rumored that Natalie left her entire multi-million dollar fortune to Dawn, although this fact is unconfirmed.
Gilligan's Island ended its three-season run in 1967, after 98 episodes. According to Dawn, it's the most rerun and syndicated tv show of all-time ("We passed I Love Lucy years ago.") Because of a very perceptive deal make by her then husband/agent Larry, Dawn was also the only Gilligan's Island cast member to receive residuals.
Although many think Dawn's career ended after Gilligan's Island, they couldn't be more mistaken. Dawn has appeared in over 100 plays, a few movies, as well as countless talk shows, voiceovers and commercials. She regularly attends autograph signing shows and conventions. She has also appeared in four post-Gilligan's Island-themed TV movies.
She has her own clothing line for the physically challenged, the "Wishing Wells" collection, and she has a skin care line called "Classic Beauty." She loves to paint and has traveled the world.
"I can't go anywhere in the world without being recognized," she says. "(I get) letters from men, soldiers- 'You helped me grow up. you were my first crush.'"
(Image credit: GabboT)
About her life, Dawn says, "I don't want to go until I've seen everything or learned everything."
It's hard to imagine anyone living a fuller or richer life than Dawn Wells. Loved and admired by all, Dawn continues bringing warmth and joy wherever she goes. To her legions of fans around the globe, Dawn will always be "forever Mary Ann."