Wells died Wednesday at 7:30 a.m. in Los Angeles from “causes related to COVID,” Harlan Boll told USA TODAY in an email. He said she “passed peacefully … in no pain.”
The star, born in Reno, represented her state as Miss Nevada in the 1959 Miss America pageant, then switched to acting. Her first TV roles were on shows such as “Maverick,” “Bonanza” and “77 Sunset Strip” before she beat out 350 other actresses for the role of Mary Ann.
Portrayed on “Gilligan’s Island” as a perky wholesome Kansas farm girl whose wardrobe included a gingham dress and belly-button-covering shorts, Wells told The Mansfield (Ohio) News Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network, that the series always provided life lessons beyond the comedy.
“It was a fun, silly show that made you laugh and didn’t preach to the audience,” she said when the show marked its 55th anniversary in 2019. “But there was an awful lot in the character of Mary Ann that kids could learn from today: She was fair, she pitched in to help, she had standards, she wasn’t worried about a $500 purse, and she would be your best friend you could trust.”
Wells enjoyed working on the show and got along with her fellow castaways – even Tina Louise (Ginger), now the only surviving original cast member, despite rumors over the years that the two feuded.
“I will always remember her kindness to me,” Louise said in a statement, according to The Associated Press. “We shared in creating a cultural landmark that has continued to bring comfort and smiles to people during this difficult time. I hope that people will remember her the way that I do – always with a smile on her face.”
“Gilligan’s Island” fans were split between crushes on Ginger vs. Mary Ann. Wells said in an interview in 2019 that her character’s down-home appeal worked in her favor.
“Don’t get me wrong – Tina was so beautiful and sexy, and I learned so much from her,” Wells told The Palm Beach Post. “But Mary Ann was wholesome, approachable and attainable. She’s the girl you’d have a crush on and want to bring home to Mom.”
Wells appeared in stage productions, movies and 150 TV shows in her career off the island – including “ALF,” “Baywatch” (guest starring as Mary Ann Summers in both), “Growing Pains,” “The Bold and the Beautiful,” “Fantasy Island” and “The Love Boat.”
Most recently, Wells starred in two web series – “Life Interrupted” and “She’s Still on That Freakin’ Island.” She voiced Gumbalina Toothington in animated series “The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants” in 2019.
In 2018, a crowdfunding effort to support Wells raised nearly $200,000.
“After 2008, like many of us, Dawn suffered through the banking crash and lost everything, including her life savings, in addition to a life-threatening surgery which came close to killing her,” explained Dugg Kirkpatrick, her friend and longtime hairdresser, on the initiative’s page. “Dawn was a victim of an unexpected accident that required hospitalization for two months and a very long time to rest and heal.”
Wells wrote several books about the show, including her 2014 tome, “A Guide to Life: What Would Mary Ann Do?”
“I wrote the book partly in response to fans over the years,” she told USA TODAY. “It’s amazing that so many people still appreciate Mary Ann’s sense of values. It was a show about seven people from various walks of life who were thrown together and had to adapt to get along despite their differences. That’s a lesson we can all learn.”
Dawn is survived by her stepsister, Weslee Wells. No services are scheduled at this time, Boll said.
Fellow members of Hollywood and fans alike mourned Wells on Twitter, recalling her role on “Gilligan’s Island” and beyond.
Actor Jon Cryer recalled a time she came to a taping of his sitcom “Two and a Half Men.”
“It was such a thrill for me to meet Dawn Wells when she came to see Two and a Half Men,” Cryer wrote on Twitter. “She could not have been more lovely and gracious. I’m so grateful that I got to enjoy the work she loved doing.”
“Condolences to the family of Dawn Wells. Very sad,” “Star Trek” actor William Shatner wrote on Twitter.
“Bewitched” actress Erin Murphy wrote she was “absolutely devastated to share the news that my lifelong friend, Dawn Wells, has passed away.”
“She was feisty, funny, talented and beautiful,” Murphy added. “I’m heartbroken.”
“Oh, this so sad. Bon voyage, Mary Ann,” Jane Lynch tweeted.
“Not the obituary I wanted to read today,” podcast host/columnist Dan Savage said.
Contributing: Patrick Ryan, Nick Thomas, Maria Puente and Kim Willis