First of all, Mary Ann was never “and the rest.” She was much more than that.
That dismissive “Gilligan’s Island” theme-song lyric popped into my head when I heard the sad news that Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann Summers on the silly, schlocky yet beloved sitcom, died Wednesday at age 82 from COVID-19 complications.
Wells‘ death is another reminder of the slow passage of baby-boomer TV iconography from an era when there were three broadcast networks and ten of millions of viewers watched the same shows at the same time. Even if the shows weren’t good, and many weren’t, everybody knew them.
Wells was known to millions of boomer kids – followed by millions more who watched the reruns over the decades – as one of seven castaways stranded on a desert island for the show’s three-season run (1964-67) and eventually celluloid eternity. (They were rescued in some later, forgettable TV films that didn’t even feature the real Ginger.)
In the first-season opening credits, Mary Ann and Wells were afterthoughts. The theme song, one of many from the era that spelled out the entire concept in less than a minute, mentioned and showed pictures of the other five cast(away) members: Gilligan, The Skipper, millionaires Mr. and Mrs. Howell and movie star Ginger Grant. However, the two other castaways, Mary Ann and The Professor (Russell Johnson), were relegated to “and the rest” – no names, no photos.
Both Wells and Johnson and their characters deserved better. They got it in Season 2, when “and the rest” was replaced with “The Professor and Mary Ann,” along with pictures of Johnson and Wells. They merited the mention – their characters were as important as any in an ensemble of stock types – and I read later that Bob Denver (who played Gilligan) lobbied hard for them to be recognized, which ultimately became the thing I liked best about the show.
Mary Ann was the stereotypical innocent, fresh-faced Kansas farm girl, designed to contrast with Ginger (Tina Louise, now the sole surviving cast member), the Marilyn Monroe-like movie star. Pigtails and gingham dress vs. evening gown and heels. No, not subtle. But kids didn’t know any better. At least I didn’t.
“Ginger or Mary Ann?” became a pledge of allegiance permanently embedded in pop culture, with viewers taking sides over the characters, either in terms of which they identified with or, more likely, which they had a crush on. In one interview, Wells said she was asked about that the most. (In the interest of journalistic transparency, I’m firmly Team Mary Ann.)
Mary Ann was level-headed, sweet and approachable, and from what I’ve been told, Wells had similar traits. I’ve covered Hollywood too long to expect an actor to be like an endearing character or to live up to a heavily polished public image, but it’s always pleasing when one does. Call it the Tom Hanks rule.
The character and the actor had the difficult task of being a grounding force on a show known for flights of foolishness (Gilligan), greed (Thurston Howell III) and vanity (Ginger), but Wells pulled it off with aplomb. She also had some wonderfully wacky turns, as when Mary Ann hit her head – ah, ’60s concussion comedy! – and thought she was Ginger.
I had the pleasure of meeting Wells. It was a surreal experience, a 2004 boat party to promote the Season 1 DVD (the only season in black-and-white) at the harbor in Marina del Rey, where one of the season-opening credits sequences was filmed. (For the record, the cruise part of the party was only about 30 minutes, not three hours; on the plus side, we did get back to port safely.)
Wells was there, along with Denver and Johnson. For some reason – and this has always stuck with me – so was Eddie Munster, I mean TV’s Butch Patrick, who played the wolfboy son of a Frankenstein’s monster and a vampire on “The Munsters.” Did characters from fantastical ’60s sitcoms all hang out together? I wish!
I remember Wells, then in her mid-60s, as enthusiastic and friendly, no mean feat when you’re answering the same questions you’ve heard for so many years about a show that likely cost you later gigs due to typecasting. She was either having a good time or making sure her fans did. Either worked for me.
As with many shows, when you watch them as an adult, they’re usually nowhere near as good as what you remembered as a child, although the “Gilligan’s” episode where the castaways put on a musical version of “Hamlet” remains a personal favorite: “There’s just one other thing you ought to do/To thine own self be true” to the “Toreador Song”? Now, that’s culture.
No matter the quality, “Gilligan’s Island” and Mary Ann are part of my youth, as they are for so many others. Now Wells is gone, another brutal loss resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. I didn’t really know her, but I feel a connection, as so many of us do with the stars of our favorite childhood shows. Her death hurts because it chips away a piece of my own youth.
As a consolation, Wells will always be with us, because “Gilligan’s Island” will forever be available (on MeTV and via various streaming options). But the stronger and better place to stay in touch with Mary Ann and her fellow castaways isn’t on TV. It’s in our memories.