Rescue Me: A Conversation with Dawn Wells

Pop culture sex symbol Dawn Wells played “good girl” Mary Ann Summers on fan favorite sit-com Gilligan’s Island from 1964-1967.

Originally published at Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict in January 2015.

Ginger or Mary Ann?  It’s the kind of pop culture problem that could give Sigmund Freud a headache.

When Gilligan’s Island premiered on television fifty years ago, the critics quickly dismissed it, stating that it was one of the worst television shows ever made.  Little did they realize that it would become not only a beloved television staple, but would entertain generations of kids for decades to come.  Part of the success of the show was creator Sherwood Schwartz’s creation of some of televisions most beloved characters – Gilligan, the Skipper and the other stranded castaways.  But they were more than just an eccentric gathering of odd ball characters.  They were broad stereotypes taken from a cross section of society – the fool, the leader, the intellect, the elite, the vamp and the all American girl.  These social archetypes have managed to transcend the years, giving Gilligan’s Island a timeless appeal.  The characters are as relevant today as they were five decades ago.

In 2015 Dawn Wells relesed her book “What Would Mary Ann Do?” – a guide to modern teenage girls filled with practicle advice about being “good,” but ot too good.

As genuine pop culture sex symbols, Ginger and Mary Ann, played by Tina Louise and Dawn Wells, became the first crushes for kids watching throughout North America.  The juxtaposition of the two characters were so broad that they became opposite ends of the sexual ying and yang – the good girl/bad girl, the virgin/whore, the girl you bring home to Mom/the girl you don’t.  Perhaps Schwartz didn’t plan it that way, but there was a lot more going on on that Island then maybe met the eye.

But what messages did Ginger and Mary Ann give to girls that grew up on the show?  Well, as Dawn Wells reveals in her new book, What Would Mary Ann Do: A Guide to Life, perhaps today’s society needs a lot more “Mary Ann’s” and a few less “Ginger’s.”

Raised by a single mother is Reno, Nevada, Dawn Wells, a former Ms. America contestant, made her way to Hollywood in the late 1950’s where she appeared on TV programs such as Bonanza, Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip before taking the role of Kansas farm girl Mary Ann Summers on Gilligan’s Island in 1964.  Pretty, bright eyed and enthusiastic, the role made her a cultural icon.

Drawing from a combination of personal life events and plain common sense, Dawn Wells uses her famous role as a symbol in her new book to talk to modern girls about values and morals .  As she explains, it’s not about being a “goody two shoes” as much as making good decisions.  While “Gingers” may seem to have more fun, but “Mary Anns” are the ones who get married.

Dawn Wells has been touring North America with her new book and talking to girls from coast to coast, proving that there is still a lot that can be learned from Ginger and Mary Ann.  While on tour she took a moment to talk to me about how her own experiences helped shape this book and how Mary Ann has become a good pop culture role model for girls and women of all ages and generations.

Sam Tweedle:  So let’s talk about you’re new book, What Would Mary Ann Do?

I think a lot of Mary Ann’s morals still resonate, like the kindness and the non-bullying and the sharing and working hard.”

Dawn Welles:  I’m very proud of it.  I really am.  This is our fiftieth anniversary [of Gilligan’s Island], so we’ve raised three generations of fans.  Well most of the men say “I dated a “Ginger,” but I married a “Mary Ann.””  When you hear the reasons why, you realize that Mary Ann’s moral compass sort of resounds, and I think it resounds more today than ever.  There wasn’t even birth control when we went on the air.  So look where we are today with Miley Cyrus on the piano and the Kardashians with five hundred dollar purses and all the ways that things have changed.  What can you do about it?  Well I think a lot of Mary Ann’s morals still resonate, like the kindness and the non-bullying and the sharing and working hard.  The book isn’t all “goody two shoes.”  It’s written in my voice and there are a lot of good pictures in the middle.  I’m really proud of it.  It really tickles me.  I’ve never written a book before.  I’ve compiled a cook book, but I’ve never written a “book-book.”  And once you start talking about something, and once you really start feeling it and putting it down, it’s quite exciting.

Sam:  So what the basic message in the book Is that in today’s society we need a lot more “Mary Anns” instead of “Gingers.”

Dawn:  Yes.  I went to my former college in Missouri and I interviewed a lot of girls.  One girl said “Mary Ann wouldn’t have a chance today.  Not a chance.  She’s not strong enough, she’s not ballsy enough, and she’s not aggressive enough.”  But another girls said “You know what the problem is?  There’s way too many “Gingers.”:  I thought “Wow, she’s really right.”  There really is too many “Gingers” with all the face lifts and five hundred dollar purses and everything.  So I started to wonder what kind of influence I would have if my book was given as a gift to thirteen or fourteen year old girls.  I mean, what is this hooking up?  What does that do for you? If you’ve got a job shouldn’t you finish it?  Is it important to be first in line?  All those little things that I think we forget because the current generation is doing so many selfies.  Do you have children?

Sam:  No I don’t, but I have a lot of kids in my life.

Dawn:  Yeah.  Me too, and you see the difference.  I have a god son and when he was thirteen he came to me and my friend and said “My girlfriend just sent me a topless picture on my phone?  What do I do?”  Well we said “What do you think we ought to do?”  He said “I think we ought to call her mother.”  So we all called her mother and we all got on the phone together and I thought to myself that it was a nice healthy way to discuss that.

Sam; What’s is your definition of a “Mary Ann” versus a “Ginger”?

One of the biggest sexual condunrums in pop culture of all time has been the eternal question “Ginger or Mary Ann?”: “In short, Mary Ann is the one you’d marry and Ginger is the one you’d date. “

Dawn:  Well, in short, Mary Ann is the one you’d marry and Ginger is the one you’d date. Ginger is a glamour girl.  She’s a beautiful woman and you’d love to have her on your arm, but I don’t know how she enhances you. Maybe by making men jealous.  I don’t know.  But I think Mary Ann would be your friend, a good mother, your buddy, a good companion, a hard worker and all of those things that I think are important.  I’m not saying that Ginger wouldn’t be, but it’s a lot harder than it’d appear to be.

Sam:  When you were doing Gilligan’s Island, did you have a lot of input in creating the character Mary Ann?

Dawn:  Well it’s interesting.  All of the other characters had a title.  The movie star, the professor, the skipper.  Mary Ann just came from Kansas, so I really started to develop her.  I really created her from me.  I grew up in Reno, Nevada, where there was legal prostitution, gambling and divorce, but I had a “Mary Ann” mother.  My mother raised me to be a “Mary Ann.”  Now she wasn’t a real prude or a “stick in the mud.”  She knew where I was every minute though.  I have a funny little story if you have the time.

Sam:  I have lots of time.

“I had a young girl that I was signing autographs for in Kentucky this summer, and she was about twelve or thirteen…I took her hand and I looked her in the eye and I said “Can I tell you something?”,,,Just say no.”  She said “What?”  I said “You’re going to be asked so many things for so many other reasons.  Start out with no.”

Dawn:  Okay.  Well between my junior and senior year of college, I’d been away to a girl’s school in Missouri and I had transferred to a university in Washington.  Well my college sweetheart was the all American quarter back, and he came from California.  He was a very nice guy, and he wanted to drive me to school  He wanted to pick me up in Reno and take me on to Seattle.  My mother said “I don’t know about you being in a car with a boy for twelve hours” but she let me do it.  Now my mother and father were divorced.  My father lived in Las Vegas, my mother lived in Reno, and they were good friends.  I never heard a bad word about them from either one of them, so they both shared raising me.  So my boyfriend is driving somewhere in Oregon, I’ve got my head leaning against the window on my door and suddenly the highway patrol pulls him over.  I said “Were you speeding?’  He said “I don’t think so.”  He rolls down the window and the highway patrol man says “Is there a Dawn Wells in the car?  Call your mother.”  So that was when I was twenty.  Now fast forward to when I am sixty.  So I was with five of my friends in the Solomon Islands canoeing from Island to island, and my mother was worried about me because it was pretty primitive.  No running water, no electricity.  So when I flew in a tiny plane to get back to Sydney so I could get back home, I walk into the airport when a pilot looks at me and says “Aren’t you Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island?”  I say “Yes I am” and he says “Your mother’s been looking for you all day.”  So this is how I was raised!  My mother wasn’t mean or strict, but I didn’t think about sneaking out or hitting my mother or any of that.  I don’t know if it is a lack of respect at home today, but I think we need a little bit of guidance.  Everybody works to hard today.  Mothers and fathers both have to work because the economy is so low.  Kids are by themselves in their bedroom doing things on their computers.  As a parent, and as a child, how are you going to have good values?  Do you say no to all the boys?

Sam:  That’s a good question.  Just how involved are parents in their children’s early relationships today?

Dawn:  I had a young girl that I was signing autographs for in Kentucky this summer, and she was about twelve or thirteen.  One of those little girls that take your breath away.  I never saw such a pretty child.  So she chatted with me and her mother was wandering around with a barbeque sauce, and I took her hand and I looked her in the eye and I said “Can I tell you something?”  She said “Oh yes Mary Ann.  Tell me anything!”  I said “Just say no.”  She said “What?”  I said “You’re going to be asked so many things for so many other reasons.  Start out with no.  It’s not because the boy is wrong or because someone wants you to endorse their product.  It’s because of what you look like, not who you are.  Because of what you look like you are going to be challenged.”  Well her mother came back and thanked me and the little girl came back and put her arms around me and hugged me.  So I think the character Mary Ann has some influence.

Sam:  That is a wonderful message that you can deliver through this character that you played all those years ago.

Dawn:  Yeah, it really is, and I think we need a little more of it with everything that is going on right now.  It’s so hard because you can’t monitor it.  All the advertisements are half nude and you hear the f-work on television.  It’s very difficult to be moral.  In the book I talk about liquor.  I say don’t drink.  Of course I say don’t drink.  My parents said don’t drink.  My father let me sample liquor at fourteen.  He gave me the keys to the liquor cabinet and said “Go taste it” and I drank straight bourbon, which is awful to a fourteen year old.  But I think I said “Daddy, may I have a mai-tai” when I was eighteen.  But now it’s a big thing.  So I say don’t drink, but then I say “Here’s what you do if you’re going to.”  Know what you’re drinking.  Have a rum and Coke.  Ask the bartender for half a shot.  Don’t go to a punch party where everybody is just throwing everything in it.  Don’t take a pill when you don’t know what you’re taking.  So I don’t think it’s not a question of you not being able to be a part of the crowd today, but you can monitor yourself.

Sam:  To me, a lot of this is just good common sense.  It’s about being smart.

Dawn:  Yes, but if you don’t talk to someone about it then you may not be part of the crowd.  Of course kids want to be popular.  They don’t want to be the only one not out doing something.  My girlfriend used to say “I’d walk around with a couple of ice cubes and a mint thing in my drink and nobody would know I was drinking water.”

Sam:  I think it’s interesting how a show that was made fifty years ago can be used to influence today’s generation this way.  A lot of shows from that era, and even a decade later, have a nostalgia value, but are not able to influence or even interest today’s generation at all.

“There was no hanky panky.  There was no thought that anybody was going to make a pass at anybody ever.”

Dawn:  Yeah.  You know, I met Charlie Sheen when he was doing Two and a Half Men, and I think that show is very funny and beautifully written and well-acted.  So I said “I have two questions for you Charlie.”  He said “What.”  I said “Do you really play the piano?”  He said “No.”  I said “Well you’ve really convinced me because it looks like you play.”  The other thing I said was “How did you say the lines you had to say over that eight year old boy’s head?”  He said “You know, that’s funny.  He’s just learning to drive and we had one line the other day and he said ‘Oh!  That’s what you meant!”  I think it’d be hard to say a lot of that stuff in front of a kid.  There’s a lot of stuff on television that’s wonderful, but sometimes they take things a little too far.

Sam:  But there was a lot of sex appeal on Gilligan’s Island.  The show wasn’t completely chaste.

Dawn:  Oh no, it wasn’t, but there was no hanky panky.  There was no thought that anybody was going to make a pass at anybody ever.

Sam:  But Ginger and Mary Ann have become sexual pop culture arch types, much like Betty or Veronica, or Wilma or Betty.

Dawn:  Yes, and you can present it like that in the era it belongs.

Sam:  Do you find it interesting that the characters have become archtypes?

I look pretty good but I don’t look like that character anymore.  I could never pull off those shorts.  Well….maybe I could.

Dawn:  Oh, I do.  I had a thirty year old ask me out the other day.  Not because of who I was.  I mean I’m fifty years older.  But because of who the character is.  I mean, I look pretty good but I don’t look like that character anymore.  I could never pull off those shorts.  Well….maybe I could.  (Laughs)

Sam:  Well I think you still look very attractive.

Dawn:  Well thank you, and I’ve never done any of that cosmetic fixing stuff.  It scares me.  You see these people who have all the money in the world, who have access to the best doctors in the world, who come out looking funny.  Their features are too big and their faces are stretched across and then it becomes a public opinion to point it out.  I think it’s all a matter of what’s in side.  I’m a happy person.  I’m an optimistic person.  I’m enjoying every moment of life.  But if you’re bitter, or angry, or trying to compete, I think it shows.

Sam:  Now you were in the Miss America Pageant in 1960.  What do you think the difference between the beauty pageant circuits in 1960 compared to today?  Is there any difference at all?

Dawn:  Oh, very much so.  First of all you’ve got bikinis.  Also, it’s all about being beautiful and strutting around and being in a fashion commercial.  Back then it was all about being the “All-American Woman.”  First of all, let me tell you why I entered.  I had no clue that I would even be nominated.  I thought “I am short.  I don’t have any talent.  Why would I go?”  But then I thought that I was a theater major, so what if I could do a scene in front of twelve hundred people, so I did.  So when I went it was all about the television show.  You had fifty girls and in one week you were putting on a TV show, so we worked hard on that.  Another thing is that we were not allowed to even talk to a man.  I couldn’t even say thank you to the elevator operator.  You had a chaperone every single second.  You couldn’t even have breast implants or dyed hair.  IT was all about being real.  It’s not like that anymore.  But it was also about winning scholarships.  You got college scholarships for winning that.

Sam:  What do you get now?  A car and a trip?

Dawn:  (Laughs) I’m not sure.  Ask Donald Trump that.

Sam: Let’s go back to Gilligan’s Island for a moment?  Are you surprised that it has become a part of the television lexicon?

“The cast was brilliant.  We all interacted well together.  Bob Denver was a master at comedy Jim Backus was very witty.  It was seven misfits from all walks of life trying to make things work.  It still resonates because isn’t that what the world is all about?”

Dawn:  Yes.  You know, they made such fun of us when we went on the air.  The critics said that it was one of the stupidest shows that CBS had ever aired.  It was so dumb.  Why would anybody put it on the air?  I think the success is because of the cast.  The cast was brilliant.  We all interacted well together.  Bob Denver was a master at comedy Jim Backus was very witty.  It was seven misfits from all walks of life trying to make things work.  It still resonates because isn’t that what the world is all about? Sherwood Schwartz was brilliant to write it.  Bob Denver was a very brilliant man.  I’m going to give you a little quiz.

Sam:  Okay.  Go for it.

Dawn:  Charlie Chaplin happened to be one of the best comedians of all time.  Do you know who Charlie Chaplin’s best friend was?

Sam:  I have no idea.

Dawn:  Albert Einstein.  You see, these two geniuses were at the opposite end of the pole, but something about that genius mind connects somewhere.  I find that so fascinating.  What did they talk about?  I don’t know.

Sam:  But Charlie Chaplin was a renowned intellect.

Dawn:  Yes he was, but he could act like a buffoon.

Sam:  Well, pop culture history shows that it often takes the smartest people to play the dumbest characters.

Dawn:  Well, as an actor, I think that when you research a role, you’ve got to get into that character.  You’ve got to understand what motivates them and what they’re thinking.  It’s more than just reading somebody’s lines.  I think a lot of actors are very bright.

Sam:  I’ve read a lot about Gilligan’s Island over the years, and the way I’ve understand it is that the person who held the cast together during the good times and the bad ones was Alan Hale Jr.

Dawn:  Oh he was a joy, but I don’t think there were any bad times.  I never saw a disagreement on the set.  There was a harmony.  Even with Tina Louise, where you think that Ginger and Mary Ann would have a conflict, it was not so.  Like Sherwood Schwartz did with The Brady Bunch, he created a misfit family.  I think that’s what we were.  It wasn’t a joking show with a lot of comedians.  Russell Johnson was actually the funniest person on the set.  He had the greatest sense of humor.  Jim Backus was always great about sharing his humor.  He would show you how to make a joke funnier.  But we were a unit.  I don’t know if you have that today.  We did 39 episodes a year.  I think you’re lucky if you do fifteen now.  So we were together a lot.

Sam:  Why do you think the show is still popular with kids today?

Dawn:  I think it’s because of that slapstick comedy.  But, you know, after writing the book I have had several messages from e-mail or over Facebook, and also in person, of people telling me that they were an abused child, they were a misfit, or they were bullied, and we were their family.  They realized that Gilligan was still loved no matter what was going on.  I’ve had letters from soldiers that say that I was carried around as their pin-ups.  I was in their helmet or that we were their inspiration when they got wounded because they knew that we represented home.  That’s pretty meaningful.  This is all from a silly little show that the critics said wouldn’t last twenty minutes.

High energy and as endearing as the character she created, Dawn Wells is a true spit-fire of a woman.  She has a sense of honesty and intelligence about her which is refreshing, making her ideas to be less idealistic and better common sense. In all honesty, Dawn Wells is the kind of woman I’d want my daughters to look up to.  What Would Mary Ann Do? is a refreshing and relevant way of looking at Gilligan’s Island, and exploring the archetypes of Ginger and Mary Ann is a different way than have been in the past.  Hopefully through her book Dawn Wells will help a few young girls make some good life choices and help put a few more Mary Anns out into the world.

Click here to order a copy of What Would Mary Ann Do? A Guide to Life by Dawn Wells.

PCA NOTE:  Special thanks to Harlan Boll for arranging our interview with Dawn Wells.  With Gilligan’s Island being a touchstone of my personal pop culture journey, visiting with Dawn Wells was a major landmark in my pop culture career  Thank you Harlan!  Its always a pleasure to work with you.  For information on Harlan Boll Public Relations visit his site at

About the author

Since 2013, Sam Tweedle has been writing as an arts and culture journalist for kawarthaNOW, with special attention to Peterborough's theatrical community. However, his career as an arts writer goes back further via his website Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict where Sam has interviewed some of the entertainment world's most notable and beloved entertainers. Sam's pop culture writing has been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek, The National Post,, Filmfax Magazine and The New Yorker. You can follow Sam on Instagram at sam_tweedle_z where he posts about his four greatest loves: cats, comic books, movies, and records. Sam no longer uses Twitter because, as far as he's concerned, it's no longer a thing.