“Ginger or Mary Ann?” It’s a question we ask and answer to declare our fundamental self, like “Beatles or Stones?” and “Lennon or McCartney?” If we understand the terms, of course — and who does not?
Dawn Wells, who played farm girl Mary Ann Summers on “Gilligan’s Island” from 1964 to 1967 — alongside Tina Louise’s movie star Ginger Grant, one of the two “eligible” women on the epochal sitcom — died of complications from COVID-19 Wednesday, leaving a small but not insignificant hole in the collective pop consciousness.
I watched a lot of “Gilligan’s Island” in my time, though my specific memories are few. A bit with hammocks, somebody in an ape suit, and there must have been an episode where a rock band landed on the island, right? But my impressions of creator Sherwood Schwartz’s tropical “Godot” remain strong. I know, at least, that I am a Mary Ann person, just as I am for the Beatles and Beatle Paul: the down-to-earth, relatable choice, more approachable, less wild. (No one ever adds Mrs. Howell into the question, or for that matter asks “Gilligan or the Professor?” That’s a subject for another time we will never get around to.)
Hollywood glamour is all right, but Ginger, one suspects, would grow bored and boring after a while. Mary Ann might ask you about yourself, where you came from, how you were doing, even if it were just to be polite. And politeness matters. With her Dorothy Gale-from-Kansas togs and pigtails, she was a pinup of a particularly wholesome sort (and Wells herself was a former Miss Nevada). But still waters run deep, or so we might imagine of her. Nothing ran very deep on the show itself.
If you watch much old television — and there is so much of it about in our 500-channels-of-reruns world — you will encounter many actors who got their one big sitcom role and then faded into the great oblivion of unremembered opening credits. Wells was famous, really famous for one thing, but there are 98 episodes of “Gilligan’s Island” — I would have said 980 offhand — and, along with a few sequel films and various cast reunions and stunt appearances, they have been playing somewhere or other more or less continually since the show ended its run.
Wells returned to television for an occasional guest role over the years — her last was as the voice of “ghost dentist” Gumbalina Toothington in an episode of “The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants” — and appeared in some low-budget films. And like many actors who fade from the screen, she did a lot of theater (including a stint in “The Vagina Monologues”), taught and involved herself in various good works. But whoever else she played, she was always going to be Mary Ann. And that she seemed to be quite all right with it, happy to own those three years back at the beginning of things, was, after all, very Mary Ann.