A drama major who was crowned Miss Nevada in 1959, Ms. Wells parlayed her pageant success into a show-business career. She made scores of screen and stage appearances over five decades, but none as memorable as her role as Mary Ann on the CBS show about a motley group of tour-boat passengers marooned on an uncharted South Pacific island.
“Gilligan’s Island,” which aired from 1964 to 1967, claimed an enduring place — as inexplicable as it was irrefutable — in pop culture. The show was dismissed by reviewers and even some network executives as escapist filler on the TV schedule, lowbrow and slapstick. But it became one of the most popular programs ever in reruns, spawning occasional TV movies that reunited most of the original cast.
Every week, viewers followed the misadventures of the goofy first mate Gilligan (Bob Denver) and his buffoonish Skipper (Alan Hale Jr.); the haughty millionaire couple Thurston and Lovey Howell (Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer); a scientist known as the Professor (Russell Johnson); a sultry movie star named Ginger Grant (Tina Louise); and Mary Ann Summers, the girl-next-door whose wardrobe of choice was short shorts and midriff tops.
“It’s not my ego talking, but Mary Ann wasn’t just a silly and sweet ingenue,” Ms. Wells observed in her 2014 self-help book, “What Would Mary Ann Do?: A Guide to Life,” written with Steve Stinson. “She was bright, fair-minded and reasonable, and I like to think that’s what I brought to her. . . . Sherwood Schwartz, the show’s producer and creator, was smart enough to put her in short shorts so you wouldn’t think of her as your bossy sister.”
The presence of Ginger and Mary Ann — the first a sexpot, the second a wholesome beauty — gave rise to an ongoing debate over who on the show best represented the male fantasy of womanhood. Ms. Wells embraced the rivalry.
“As a matter of fact, I’ve got a T-shirt that’s a ballot that says ‘Ginger or Mary Ann, the ultimate dilemma,’ ” she told the Vancouver Sun in 2014. “You can go anywhere and say ‘Ginger or Mary Ann?’ You don’t have to say what show it is. Everybody gets it. And I always win.”
Dawn Elberta Wells was born in Reno, Nev., on Oct. 18, 1938. She attended the all-women’s Stephens College in Missouri with plans to study chemistry but developed an interest in the arts and transferred to the University of Washington in Seattle.
She graduated in 1960, was Nevada’s representative in the 1960 Miss America contest and gave herself two years to make a mark as an actress — or otherwise return to college for medical-school training.
After small roles on TV series such as “77 Sunset Strip,” “Surfside 6” and “Hawaiian Eye,” Ms. Wells found herself up against another obscure actress for the role of Mary Ann. “That’s the only time I could beat Raquel Welch out of anything,” she later quipped to the Associated Press.
She married and divorced her agent, Larry Rosen, in the 1960s. Survivors include a stepsister.
Struggling to find challenging work after “Gilligan’s Island,” Ms. Wells turned to stage productions, often appearing in Neil Simon plays. She also had a featured role in the serial-killer movie thriller “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” (1976).
She told the New York Times that certain doors were closed to her, one of them being a staging of the Eve Ensler play “The Vagina Monologues.” “Are you out of your mind?” she recalled producers asking. “Mary Ann?” (She was hired for a touring production.)
In the late 1980s, Ms. Wells created a now-defunct clothing line for the elderly and disabled called Wishing Wells. For a time, she lived in Idaho and served as chief executive of the nonprofit Idaho Film and Television Institute, an actor’s workshop that shuttered in 2009.
She did not distance herself too much from her signature TV part, lending her name to “Mary Ann’s Gilligan’s Island Cookbook” (1993). She also starred in a short film, “She’s Still on That Freakin’ Island” (2015), but sporting jeans rather than her earlier skin-baring look.
“I actually have a pair of the original shorts from the show,” she told writer Nick Thomas, “but I’m not sure if they would fit me now.”
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