For a long time after production ended on “Gilligan’s Island,” Dawn Wells hoped to change her image as the sweet, pretty “perfect ingenue.”
“I was always trying to get past the Mary Ann thing,” she said during a break from rehearsals for “Steel Magnolias,” in which she currently is performing at the Alhambra Theatre & Dining. “Let me play a hooker.”
That, in fact, was what she did after the cast of “Gilligan’s Island” received the surprising last-minute word the show had been canceled by CBS after three seasons.
She went to the Showboat Dinner Theatre in Tampa and starred in “The Owl and the Pussycat” as Doris, an actress, model and part-time prostitute.
Playing dinner theaters was something she began doing regularly, becoming, in 1969, the second celebrity performer at the Alhambra, playing the lead in “Barefoot in the Park.”
But escaping “the Mary Ann thing” wouldn’t be easy. “Gilligan’s Island” was ubiquitous. Once, while traveling, she visited a village on one of the Solomon Islands that lacked electricity. And still she was recognized.
But she also contributed to “the Mary Ann thing” by reprising the role in three reunion movies, “Rescue from Gilligan’s Island,” “The Castaways on Gilligan’s Island” and “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island,” as well as providing the voices of both Mary Ann and Ginger on a reunion cartoon spin-off, “Gilligan’s Planet.”
She won the role of Mary Ann in audition with 300 other girls. She wasn’t in the pilot, but creator Sherwood Schwartz replaced the pilot’s Mary Ann with Wells.
Wells said the cast members had no great expectations when filming began.
“We thought this wasn’t going to last,” she said. “It was corny.”
The story behind the surprise cancellation is CBS programmers had decided to cancel “Gunsmoke” before the 1967-68 season. But CBS network president William S. Paley and his wife loved “Gunsmoke,” and pressured the programmers to put it back on the air in the 7:30 p.m. time slot occupied by “Gilligan’s Island.”
So Wells went on to a career that included some television and lots of theater. She did national tours of “Chapter Two” and “They’re Playing Our Song.” The latter was a musical, which posed a special challenge for Wells.
“I can’t sing,” she said. “But the producer wanted me, so I went to a vocal coach for six months.”
Now 78, Wells finally has escaped “the Mary Ann thing.”
In “Steel Magnolias,” she plays Louisa “Ouiser” Boudreaux, the town curmudgeon.
“I love the play,” she said. “I’m at an interesting point in my life where I get to do character roles. It’s fun to play a character.”
Preparing for the role has been especially enjoyable she said.
“Normally I like the rehearsal period,” she said. “There’s creativity and camaraderie. It’s wonderful to do a good play.”
Working with director Tod Booth has also been enjoyable, she said.
“It’s like working with a Broadway director,” she said. “It’s a joy. There is trust and he’s really good.”
Charlie Patton: (904) 359-4413