Dawn Wells, the actress who helmed the iconic role of Mary Ann in Gilligan’s Island and long served as the girl-next-door archetype for film and television, has died. Wells’ publicist confirmed to CNN that the actress died in Los Angeles on Wednesday due to complications from COVID-19. She was 82 years old.
Born in Reno, Nevada, Wells first claimed her spotlight in 1959 when she was crowned Miss Nevada, leading her to represent her state in the Miss America pageant in 1960. Her time as a beauty queen led to the beginning of her television career, earning her a host of guest appearances in 1961, including Maverick and a reoccurring stint on 77 Sunset Strip. After years of brief appearances and walk-on bits, she auditioned against 350 actresses for the role that would ultimately cement her spot in television history: Gilligan’s Island premiered in September of 1964 with Wells taking on the gingham-adorned role of Mary Ann, the demure counterpart to Tina Louise’s sultry and glamorous Ginger.
Wells and Louise’s onscreen dynamic sparked one of the most ubiquitous pop culture debates— “Ginger or Mary Ann?”—and still shines a bright spotlight on the enduring nature of gendered expectations in entertainment. What’s more, Mary Ann stood as a pig-tailed paragon of Americana, the prototype for the kind of wholesomeness that women were expected to chase. The character set such a potent example that it became hard for Wells to escape it herself, often reprising her role in numerous guest spots throughout the decades in shows like Alf and Baywatch. After the show ended in 1967, she signed on to play a sex worker in the rom-com The Owl And The Pussycat, a role that she discussed with Smashing Interviews Magazine in 2019: “Mary Ann was a good girl. She was polite. She was a hard worker. She would be your best friend. She cooked. She cleaned. She did all of those things, and she was a really good role model. But the first thing you want to do is break that character and go do something else.”
That “something else” included a long theater career packed with numerous stage productions and national tours, including Steel Magnolias, The Odd Couple, and The Vagina Monologues. She also co-authored a book with Steven Stinson called What Would Mary Ann Do? A Guide To Life, released a cookbook in 1993, and engaged in years of humanitarian work that supported the disabled community.