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‘Gilligan’ gal a cowgirl at heart

by Jim Longworth

In the annals of pop culture, there have been three great debates: Coke or Pepsi? Ford or Chevy? And Ginger or Mary Ann? The answers to the first two may never be settled, but I’m here to tell you that the third is a no-brainer. Mary Ann is, of course, a fictional character from the iconic TV comedy series “Gilligan’s Island.” She is beautiful. She’s dependable and loyal. She’s resourceful. She’s easy to talk to. And she’s the best cook this side of the equator. Best of all, Mary Ann’s alter ego has all those same qualities, and more.

Dawn Wells is most famous for her girl next door role on “Gilligan,” but she began her career close to her Reno roots, by acting in dozens of TV Westerns.

“I’ve ridden horses since I was a kid. Nevada was real Western. I shoot skeet and trap shoot. My father was a hunter, so I’m a real Western girl.”

And, in one of her earliest Western roles, Wells channeled her great-great-grandfather who was a stagecoach driver.

“I remember one of the first Western episodes I did, they asked me, ‘Can you drive a buckboard?’ I hadn’t driven a buckboard in my life, but I said, ‘Of course I can!’ My horse got away and they had to come get me. I didn’t know a thing about driving a buckboard, but I thought I could do it.”

As much as she loved working on TV Westerns, Dawn showed her acting range by appearing in other genres, including detective shows, medical shows and comedies. Then came her big break with “Gilligan’s Island,” which aired on CBS from 1964 to 1967. Since then, several stories have circulated about how Wells landed the role of Mary Ann Summers, and how she was the only cast member to make a deal for long term residuals.

“I didn’t receive any more money than anyone else. I think how the rumor started was they were testing for this new cast, and I had interviewed several times with ‘Gilligan’ creator Sherwood Schwartz. After the third interview, he said, ‘I think I might test you a second time because you’re too smart to play Mary Anne.’ My husband told Sherwood, ‘Either test her now, or you don’t test her.’ They tested me, and I got the part.”

As for money, Wells never dwelled on what might have been, but she did tell me about one cast member who resented the lack of pay for reruns.

“Jim Backus [Thurston Howell III], was very bitter about it. I said, ‘Jim, how can you be bitter? How can you fight something that didn’t exist? It’s like saying, ‘Why isn’t my film in color when it’s 1920 and we were only shooting in black and white?’ I think on the first set of re-runs we might have made $50,000 over a period of five years. Sherwood and CBS made $90 million on the re-runs of ‘Gilligan’s Island’ alone. He could have afforded to split a million dollars among the seven of us.”

The producer was also stingy when it came to sex scenes. I asked Dawn if she thought Mary Ann and the Professor ever had relations.

“We weren’t allowed to touch or any of that. There was never any romance. You couldn’t even show my navel. Every time Ginger kissed somebody, she either knocked them out, or they fainted. We always had twin beds. We’ve come a long way. If we were doing the show now, we’d all be living in the same hut!” Today, Wells keeps busy by performing on stage and in films. She just completed production on the horror comedy Silent But Deadly with good friend Lee Meriwether, and is winding up a run of Nora and Delta Ephron’s Love, Loss, and What I Wore. Dawn is also in big demand at nostalgia festivals.

“I like attending these festivals. Usually it’s about ‘Gilligan’s Island.’ You’ll see the grandmother, the mother and father, and the children, and it’s three generations. It’s kind of nice to meet the people you’ve raised, so I enjoy that.”

Rest assured, plenty of fans will be turning out to see Dawn at the upcoming Western Film Fair, being held from July 10 through 13 at the Hawthorne Inn and Conference Center in Winston Salem. And they will be pleased to know that Cowgirl Dawn is planning to celebrate her heritage.

“I’m going to come in my Western costume. This will be my first festival just for Westerns. I’m going to wear my cowboy hat”.

Let’s see Ginger try and top that!

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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