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Jan21WedAs one of TV's most famous stranded castaways, actress Dawn Wells proves that nice girls finish first. January 21, 2015 by Jayne Thurber-Smith
Anyone who has ever owned a TV can probably sing along to the theme song of a well-beloved sitcom: “Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip....” Even though Gilligan's Island aired for only three seasons, it's the longest-longest-running sitcom in syndication—still seen worldwide in more than 30 languages.
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- Faith & Friends
Though Bob Denver's Gilligan was the most popular of the stranded castaways, it was Dawn Wells, who portrayed the perennially perky farm-girl-next-door Mary Ann Summers, who was arguably the most lovable, receiving three times the fan mail of her female co-star Tina Louise, who played the sultry actress Ginger Grant.
Gilligan's Island celebrated its 50th anniversary this past September. In conjunction with that remarkable milestone, Dawn has written A Guide to Life: What Would Mary Ann Do?
“My mother raised me with 'Mary Ann values' and didn't even know she was doing it,” says Dawn. “And that was in Reno, Nevada, where there was gambling and prostitution.”
Actor Russell Johnson's Professor and Dawn's character were originally unnamed in the theme song, after the other five cast members were listed individually, tagged on to the end as “… and the rest, here on Gilligan's Isle.” She quickly became a fan favourite, causing the song to be changed to include “… the Professor and Mary Ann….”
When Russell, who died last January, found out that Dawn was working on What Would Mary Ann Do? he asked to do the foreword.
“Dawn added the flow of love and life to her character and made us love her,” he fondly wrote.
In her book, Dawn dispenses advice to young women who are experiencing an “anything goes” culture that is too powerful and too pervasive to be controlled by parents, siblings or colleagues. She notes the importance of well-informed and carefully thought-out decision-making throughout the course of life.
Dawn is grateful for a loving mother who showed her the kind of person she wanted to emulate.
“My mother was very instrumental in who I am today,” she comments. “She took me to our church ever since I was four. She was kind, giving, thoughtful, generous—all the things the Bible encourages you to be. My dad was a good soul, too, always helping others. The world needs more of 'Let's all care about each other' because we are going to have to answer to Somebody, someday.”
“The Perfect Mary Ann”
Raised a Baptist, Dawn is on the road so much now that she doesn't adhere to one church in particular.
“In my opinion—and I am now old enough to have one!—your faith is always within you,” she says. “It reinforces you, it is the whole of you and doesn't always need to be preached to.”
Dawn attended Sunday school as a little girl, and as a teenager went on to teach a Sunday school class.
“I wanted to sing in the choir but I got kicked out. That was OK, because I really can't sing.”
Dawn laughs at that. She laughs quite often, and when asked if that is her secret to staying young she says, “I truly am a happy person. I'm not good at telling jokes, but I look at things kind of askew sometimes.”
Being unable to sing played in her favour career-wise. After graduating with a degree in theatre, she gave herself a year to make a successful career out of it in Los Angeles.
“I picked L.A. as my destination because New York was mostly musical theatre and I'd never win a singing audition,” she says. “When I got to Los Angeles, I was cast immediately in a play. Then I was optioned by Warner Bros., and when I auditioned for Mary Ann, the casting director hired me as soon as I walked in. I was the perfect Mary Ann ingenue.”
Besides Russell, Dawn also kept in touch with Bob Denver. He died in 2005 and Dawn continues to lend her support to the Denver Foundation, a charity chaired by Bob's wife, Dreama. The Denver Foundation assists and enriches the lives of special needs individuals, in honour of their severely autistic son, Colin. With so many causes needing support, Dawn thoughtfully chooses those to which she can devote her time.
“I was very close to a sweet girl who had cystic fibrosis,” Dawn says. “Sadly, she passed away. I help out with that foundation because she was so dear to me. There is such joy for me in seeing those who join in with the rest of the world despite any disabilities they have. Life's not easy on them or on their families. As a healthy, strong woman, it helps my heart to help those who aren't blessed with good health.”
Along with her philanthropic work, Dawn still puts her theatrical degree to good use and continues to work on both stage and screen.
“The entertainment industry is starting to turn toward involving Christian audiences,” Dawn observes. “Every year, there are more faith-based movies being produced. If it's good without being preachy, it'll work.”
And while she recently completed three stage productions—Love Letters, Steel Magnolias and Love, Loss & What I Wore, she's fine with being remembered as Mary Ann “… here on Gilligan's Isle.”