In the turbulent 1960s, Gilligan’s Island, a TV sitcom about seven castaways marooned on an “un-charted desert isle,” provided a kooky escape from reality. And Dawn Wells, who passed away on December 30, 2020, at age 82 from COVID-19 complications, played the show’s biggest sweetheart: Kansas farm girl Mary Ann Summers.

“All the things Mary Ann stood for were the good things,” Dawn told Closer in 2019. “She had as much say-so as any-body else, but she did it nicely.”

Dawn Wells
Mediapunch/Shutterstock
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Mediapunch/Shutterstock (10533078a)
Dawn Wells
Dawn Wells photoshoot – USA

When this former beauty queen from Reno, Nevada signed on for creator Sherwood Schwartz’s series, she was given just a broad idea of her character. “I had to fill in the blanks. She was molded by me from me,” said Dawn, who gave Mary Ann clean-cut sex appeal as well as sweetness.

Although critics never warmed to the show, it proved popular with families who continued to tune in after it went into syndication. Decades of reruns made the cast even more famous, but not rich. “Those residuals and stuff weren’t happening then,” confided Dawn, who estimated that she made just $50,000 from syndication. She would continue to work in films, TV and theater, and even spent time as a TV journalist in Australia, but Mary Ann remained her calling card.

“As an actress, I would have liked to have been challenged much more,” she admitted. “But I’m very proud of it.” And Gilligan fans never stopped loving her. In 2018, a GoFundMe drive raised $197,000 for Dawn’s medical bills following a bad fall. “I am amazed at the kindness and affection I have received,” Dawn said. She shouldn’t have been. “She was family,” Tina Louise, Gilligan‘s last surviving cast-away says, speaking not just for the show’s actors, but for Mary Ann’s legion of fans.

For this story and more, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.