Off the island

Dawn Wells

Photo by David Robert

Most people think of Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island when they think of Dawn Wells. Although it may be her most famous character, Wells continues to work in show business today. She has put some distance between herself and Gilligan’s Island—and from Reno. A Nevada native, Wells graduated from Reno High School in the 1950s, but left town for college and, later, an acting career in Hollywood. Today, Wells runs an actors’ boot camp that trains amateurs to become professionals and has her own line of clothing for the elderly, available on her Web site, She will appear in Love Letters with former Batman star Adam West Feb. 14 at the Golden Phoenix.

Which is more fictional—Gilligan’s Island or the Survivor TV show of today?

[Laughs.] Which was more fictional? Gilligan’s, of course. The first Survivor I felt was real interesting, because nobody knew how to play the game, and it was a new experience. Now I think they’re casting all the wannabes, and everyone has everything figured out before they arrive, so it’s very different.

For the Tonight Show Survivor you had to compete for the title “Hollywood’s Ultimate Survivor.”

I thought I had it too, darn it.

Jerry Mathers won it.

Yep, I thought I had it. It was right to the end. [Laughs.] But he did, he ate the worm or the eye or something. I only had to eat a Brussels sprout. I give him credit for that. I couldn’t have done that.

Do you consider yourself a Hollywood survivor anyway?

Yeah! Yeah, I consider myself a survivor, when you realize I’ve been in the business since 1962. I was 22 when I started. I consider myself very lucky. And today I’m working all the time, unless I take some time off. Definitely a survivor.

How does your summer training camp, the Film Actor’s Boot Camp, help amateur actors?

It gives them the tools. It gives them the tools to find a job; it gives them a real reality check of what to look for once you get out of your training to earn a living. It gives you the tools to reject the things that are not correct, to learn to budget and [work with] unions and rules and all of that, so that you focus on the business end of it—in addition to taking your art form and putting it in front of the camera. I feel that if God gave you a gift, you should try to develop that.

Tell me about your line of clothing, Wishing Wells.

It’s a clothing line for elderly or disabled people. It gives them quality of life and some dignity. It provides a service that I think is very necessary.

And a scholarship is available to Nevada actors. Is this to help actors get off the island, so to speak, or just a nice native Nevadan nod?

It’s to help them get off the island. To help them set sail to their final journey of pursuing a career.

Was there a connection between your Hollywood experience and Mary Ann, your Dorothy-from-Kansas character?

I was very much raised like a Mary Ann. I came from a very work-ethic-oriented family. All of the stuff that Mary Ann stands for, but Mary Ann was very inexperienced. All I can say is that when I went away to college, I couldn’t understand why everything wasn’t open 24 hours. I [moved] from Reno to Missouri, which was like going to Kansas [from Oz]. The worldliness of growing up in Reno was definitely not a part of Mary Ann.