For actress Dawn Wells, a three-hour tour has stretched into a 50-year journey.
Wells may have left for “Gilligan’s Island” nearly half a century ago, but the character she played, Kansas farm girl Mary Ann, is still very much with her.
“It’s more mind blowing now, wherever I am in the world, that I’m recognized. It’s never been off the air,” Wells said in a telephone interview this week.
Wells has a new book out, “What Would Mary Ann Do?” and will be holding a book signing at Tacoma’s own tiki-themed lounge, Tacoma Cabana, on Thursday (Dec. 11). The downtown bar and restaurant on Pacific Avenue continually shows “Gilligan’s Island” reruns on one of its TVs.
Wells also will be making related appearances in Seattle, at BlackRapid and the University of Washington bookstore.
In the book, Wells uses Mary Ann as the voice of reason in life’s Big Questions.
“She was the moral compass of that show. She was fair, she was honest, she was a hard worker, cheerful, dependable,” Wells said. That character still resonates with fans today, new and old, she said. It was Wells’ male fans who inadvertently inspired the book.
“They come up to me and say, ‘I dated a lot of Gingers but I married a Mary Ann.’ ”
“Gilligan’s Island” was as farcical as any TV sitcom has been. And yet the seven castaways of the SS Minnow have worked their way into the psyches of three generations of Americans. The show ran from 1964-67 on CBS, spanning the transition from black and white to color TV during its 98 episodes.
“Here were seven very different characters. How did they survive? They were kind, they were thoughtful. They became a family,” Wells said.
The plot of most episodes revolved around a scheme to get off the island. By the end of each show, the plan was usually spoiled by perpetual goof-up and first mate Gilligan, played by Bob Denver.
“I really consider Bob Denver a genius with his comedy. He was just brilliant. It looks like it’s so easy, but it isn’t,” Wells said.
Aside from the antics of the contrasting characters, viewers were entertained by the endless variety of devices the castaways would create out of bamboo, including a pedal-powered car.
Wells’ character, Mary Ann Summers, was portrayed as a pig-tailed farm girl from Kansas. Wells herself grew up in Reno, Nevada, where she was crowned Miss Nevada in 1959.
After two years at Stephens College in Missouri, she transferred to the University of Washington in Seattle.
“I was very interested in medicine and also interested in theater, and Washington had both,” Wells. After UW, she went to Hollywood.
“I gave myself two years, and if I didn’t go to work as an actor, I’d go back to med school,” she said.
Soon she had a contract with Warner Bros. that netted roles in nine films. “I was one of the ingénues in town. You know how that goes.”
Then came the role in 1964 that would forever alter her life.
“Everybody made fun of the show and thought it wouldn’t last 20 minutes,” Wells said.
Those proverbial 20 minutes have turned into half a century of reruns. Somewhere in the world “Gilligan’s Island” is always playing.
Several years ago, Wells, who calls herself an adventurer, was paddling to a remote isle in the Solomon Islands with five lady friends. “Where no white women have ever been, no running water, no electricity. On this one little island, the chief’s wife looked at me and said, ‘I know you,’ ” Wells related.
It turns out the chief’s wife had been a nursing student in the 1970s in Honiara, the Solomon Island’s capital, and had come home from school every day to watch “Gilligan’s Island.”
“I’ve done a lot of other things that are more challenging, acting wise, but never in your dreams would you think you’d do a show where you would be recognized all over the world,” said Wells, now 76.
After “Gilligan,” Wells pursued roles different from Mary Ann to show her range. But she’s never tried to distance herself from the character.
In 2001, she was a co-executive producer for a TV movie for CBS, “Surviving Gilligan’s Island,” based on the lives of the show’s actors before, during and after the sitcom.
“Ginger (Tina Louise) wouldn’t take any part in it, didn’t want to be reminded of it,” Wells said.
Louise now is the only other surviving cast member from the show.
“She doesn’t want to be identified with it. And we lead different lives. It’s nothing personal, we just didn’t have much in common,” Wells said.
Along with boxers or briefs, one of pop culture’s longtime litmus tests is: Ginger or Mary Ann? Wells laughs when fans bring that up to her. “You know exactly what they are talking about.”
Fans naturally tell Wells that Mary Ann is the only plausible answer.
“I always win. Robin Williams is the only person who told me, ‘I like Ginger better,’ ” Wells said.
Though Mary Ann’s description was thinly described by creator Sherwood Schwartz, Wells said the part came easy for her.
“My mother raised me as a Mary Ann. I think it was a good thing. I was dependable; I had chores.”
Wells hopes her book offers a compass to a new generation. “It’s a great book to read with your 14-year-old daughter,” she said. It covers handling failures, manners, substance abuse, self-identity and other issues. “It’s a cute, easy read. I’m really proud of it.”
In 2015, Wells has her second cookbook coming out. Aside from the occasional acting gig, producing jobs and public appearances, she’s also a fly fisherman, poker player and football fan. That last hobby was developed in Seattle.
“I learned the game because my college sweetheart was the quarterback for the Huskies.”