A half-century after the family comedy series “Gilligan’s Island” premiered on CBS, fans around the globe are still watching. They remember with crystal clarity the words to the theme song, the plot details of their favorite episodes, and whether they were, and still are, Team Ginger or Team Mary Ann.
All this delights no one more than the actress who filled Mary Ann Summers’ tennis shoes, Dawn Wells. She, along with other “blasts from the past,” including stars from “CHiPs,” “I Dream of Jeannie” and “The Dukes of Hazzard,” will appear at the Cajun Country Jam on Saturday at the Livingston Fairgrounds.
“I know John (Schneider, ‘Dukes of Hazzard’) real well, and Jimmy Best (also from ‘Dukes’) used to be my acting coach, of course, he’s gone now,” Wells said Tuesday from Los Angeles. “And I’m very excited to see Barbara, because Barbara Eden (‘I Dream of Jeannie’) and I, when I first started the series, were very good friends, so it’s going to be kind of fun for me just to be with everybody I know.”
When she’s not doing live theater, or, just recently, a TV pilot called “Life Interrupted,” Wells said she takes part in such meet-and-greet events around the country often. Attendees are eager to discuss their personal connections to “Gilligan’s Island,” the 1964-’67 classic in which seven men and women are stranded on an uncharted island after a raging storm. Wells’ Mary Ann was a pretty girl-next-door farm girl, contrasting with Tina Louise’s Ginger, a stunning Hollywood starlet.
“Most of the men say ‘Marry me,’ or ‘I married a Mary Ann. I dated a Ginger, but I married a Mary Ann,’ ” Wells said of her celebrity appearances.
“They usually want to recall an episode. I get so many people who want to talk about the radioactive vegetables. I guess when you’re a kid, there’s maybe two or three (episodes) that stand out,” she said.
In the episode “Pass the Vegetables, Please,” Gilligan finds a crate of radioactive seeds washed ashore on the beach. When the castaways eat the vegetables grown from the seeds, hilarious side effects commence.
“I think it’s almost like sharing their family, because fathers will bring their children and say ‘You don’t know, but I used to watch it when I was 7 or 8 or 9, you know, your age.”
The information in fan mail sometimes is on a more serious note.
“I get the questions of how they felt growing up, I mean, that I (my photo) was in their helmet in Vietnam, that they were abused children and the show was their escape, or it was something they shared with their brothers and sisters every afternoon.”
Wells has her ideas on why the show has endured in popularity since its first-run finale on Sept. 4, 1967.
“I think it’s pretty clear. There’s no dating it at all. There’s no ’56 Chevy in the driveway, there’s no reference to anything going on that’s happening now ... it’s a bunch of misfits trying to get along,” she said. “And I think it’s either when you’re a kid, you’re one of those kids on the block, or it’s the way the world is today, everybody’s trying to get along. And it’s done with joy and love and happiness, and no arguments, no fights, not any of that, and I think that’s probably Sherwood’s (Schwartz, creator) genius about putting us there with no time at all.
“You know, some little kid in Czechoslovakia is watching it for the first time thinking it’s happening for the first time. And I think we’re in, I don’t know, 20 or 30 languages or something. I can’t imagine the theme song in Japanese, but I’d love to see it in another language. It was quite a genius thing, even though we were made such fun of. The press thought it was the stupidest thing. They said it won’t last six weeks. I think we’re the longest-running show, except for ‘I Love Lucy,’ ever.”
Although Mary Ann is the role she’s famous for, Wells has countless stage credits from the late ’60s to today.
“I remember the first play I did after ‘Gilligan’s Island’ was ‘Owl and the Pussycat,’ and I played a hooker, and I played it very sweet and very nice,” she recalled. “But I went right back to theater because I thought I’d be cast as that little farm girl for the rest of my life. So I went back and tried, not to break the image, but just improve my craft basically.”
In 2013, Wells starred in Kentucky Stages’ “The Lion in Winter” and closed May 31 at the Laguna Playhouse (California) in “Love, Loss, and What I Wore.” She’s already preparing for a turn in one of her bucket-list plays, “Driving Miss Daisy,” next summer.
Going strong at 76, Wells said bad knees keep her from working out, but she has always eaten a balanced diet, at least post-“Gilligan’s Island.”
“I was always on a diet when I was doing the show, because, my God, with those shorts, you had to be,” she said, laughing about Mary Ann’s abbreviated wardrobe.
“I’m older than dirt, but I think it’s your mental attitude. I mean I have something to look forward to every day.
“I’m busy, and I’m really so grateful to be at this stage in my life and still doing what I love.”