Speaking with Dawn Wells on the telephone, you don't feel like you're talking to an icon of American pop culture. She's feisty, down to earth, and very funny. For the actress who played Mary Ann Summers on the venerable sitcom Gilligan's Island, being the charming "girl next door" was what it was all about.
"This is not my ego talking," Wells says, "but Mary Ann was bright, fair-minded and reasonable, and I like to think that's what I brought to her. She wasn't just a silly and sweet ingénue. And they put her in short shorts so you wouldn't think she was your sister!"
Originally airing for three seasons from 1964 to 1967, Gilligan's Island was a hit with audiences and an immediate punching bag for television critics. The cartoonish setup of mismatched castaways on an uncharted island, slapstick humor and a constant parade of outlandish plots led many critics to roast the show as the ultimate exemplar of television banality — a criticism the show has weathered and triumphed over, maintaining its enduring popularity for more than five decades.
"Sherwood Schwartz (creator and producer of the show) was smart enough to cover all the bases with basic character types," Wells says. "I think he really had a vision. It was the first time there was a 'family' on TV out of the living room. It was seven misfits trying to live together, and I think it has lasted because that's what the world is today. We are all a mixed group of people trying to get along."
Entering syndication as soon as it ended its network run, Gilligan's Island became a staple of afternoon television with generations of kids basking in its silliness and charm as an after-school ritual. Along the way, the show became a pop culture touchstone, with one of the most ubiquitous references being the conflict between feminine archetypes embodied in the simple question, "Mary Ann or Ginger?"
"I love it because I always win!" Wells says, laughing. "Ginger was absolutely beautiful and sexy, but I think Mary Ann would be your best friend. She was obtainable — you could take her to the prom. So many men tell me, 'I married a Mary Ann!' "
Although becoming a sweetheart to baby boomers and subsequent generations led to lasting fame for Wells, it didn't do much for her career in terms of Hollywood roles. She dodged the typecasting trap by relying on the attitude that first led her to acting.
"I didn't want to be a movie star," Wells says. "I didn't want to be famous. I didn't want to be one of these celebrities that don't do anything. I wanted to act. So I went back on the road playing in national theatrical tours to hone my craft."
That's not to say her association with Mary Ann doesn't sometimes interfere. "I had a terrible time getting an audition for a production of The Vagina Monologues in Chicago a few years ago," she says. "I had to remind them, 'For gosh sakes, I can act!' "
Although Wells appeared in a handful of theatrical films, including the 1976 low-budget cult horror classic The Town That Dreaded Sundown, her main concentration has remained on the stage. "As I became more experienced, I was able to branch out," Wells says. "And now I'm thrilled to do parts like The Lion in Winter, which I'll be doing for the Kentucky Rep in November and December."
Her upcoming appearance at Nashville Comic Con this Friday through Sunday at Hotel Preston, 733 Briley Parkway, is not only a chance for her to meet with fans, it's also an opportunity to visit her old friends in Nashville. Wells moved to Nashville in the early '70s when she became involved in a long-term relationship with former WTVF general manager Tom Ervin, a relationship that lasted almost 15 years.
"I always say I fell in love, moved to Nashville, and fell out of love and moved away," she says. "I have wonderful memories of Nashville. My very best friend lives there, and her children and the daughters of another friend of mine are like my own. I don't have kids, so it's like a family tie for me. I'm still very emotionally tied to the city. So I'm happy to be back."
At 74, Wells has no plans to retire from acting or from her involvement in the many charitable causes she supports, including the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn. "I am so fortunate to love what I do and been able to do it my whole life," she says. "I'm just so grateful. I'm going to live to be a hundred, and I want to be Betty White when I grow up!"