‘Gilligan’s Island’: Dawn Wells Revealed Reason for Show’s Success, Said Actors Didn’t Have Much Input

by Josh Lanier

Creating a character usually is a team sport. The writers and actors need to be on the same page with the director and on down the line. But Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island, said the character was perfectly on the page, and all she needed to do was follow the direction.

Wells told Smashing Interviews that the scripts were tightly written and the actors were archetypes meant to fit those roles.

“The writers just wrote the script,” she said. “You would bring to the character what you needed to bring to it. Jim Backus may have brought more to it because he was very funny. Natalie (Schafer) was very much Mrs. Howell, and Ginger was a movie star. It’s all in the casting. It really is. Casting is the most important thing.”

Actually, she said, a lot of television in the 1960s was like that. It’s why she never struggled to find work when she got to Hollywood. She fit a type that studios were looking for, the beautiful girl-next-door type.

“But I just got an agent at a small little agency, and they just sent me out for auditions all the time,” she said. “I was a perfect type, I was a little round-faced ingénue, and there were a lot of guest spots for that type, just not for the very challenging roles, so to speak. I went to work right away, I trained. And I studied for it, but I was lucky,” said Wells. “There was a lot of stuff being filmed and quite a bit going on in the 60s in television. I probably had two or three auditions a day. I did a couple of movies, but you’d get guest spots on all these TV shows. You’d work right away.”

Dawn Wells Gives Final Interview

Dawn Wells died last year because of complications of COVID-19. She was 82. Wells gave her final interview with PEOPLE magazine in 2018 to give her final impressions on her life and career.

She explained when producers first conceived of the show, the inhabitants stranded by the S.S. Minnow were much different. For one, Ginger, the movie star, was originally going to be a school teacher. And Mary Ann wasn’t going to be as naive. She would have had some street smarts, but the producers didn’t think it worked.

Mary Ann was originally going to be a secretary named Bunny who worked at a talent agency in Los Angeles,” she said with a laugh. “Can you imagine? They needed someone innocent and optimistic, so they changed her to a farm girl.”

Despite the changes, rewrites, and upheaval, the cast bonded quickly, she said. They gelled and remained close for the remainder of their lives.

“That’s one thing about our show: we were all very kind to each other,” Wells said. “Of course the Skipper would smack Gilligan over the head with his hat … but it was slapstick. They loved each other.”

“And all of us [actors] loved each other. We didn’t call each other bad names.” She concluded, “We were family. We were in this together.”