Mary Ann vs Ginger: Dawn Wells and Tina Louise

While all the girls loved David Cassidy growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, guys had a harder choice.  They were always asked to choose between Jeannie and Samantha and Mary Ann vs. Ginger. Ginger and Mary Ann didn’t seem to have much in common.  Unfortunately, that was also true of Dawn Wells and Tina Louise. Let’s look at their careers and their time as cast members on Gilligan’s Island.

Dawn Wells

Dawn Wells was born in October of 1938 in Reno, Nevada. Her father was a real estate developer and she seemed to have a happy childhood, gardening and horseback riding. Her parents divorced when she was young, but they shared custody. She was bright, an honor roll student. She was also on the debate team and her class treasurer. She won Miss Nevada. Originally, she wanted to be a doctor or a dancer, but bad knees reduced her choices and then she took drama at Stephens College. She was bit by the acting bug and transferred to the University of Washington, earning her degree in theatre.

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After school, Dawn moved to Hollywood and began working in both theater and movies. Her first film was Palm Springs Weekend in 1963. In the early 1960s, she appeared in about 20 shows, many of them westerns.

In 1964 she was offered the role of Mary Ann Summers on Gilligan’s Island. She enjoyed her time with the show. In a September 27, 2014 LA Times article by Susan King, she said, “Bob Denver, who played the bumblingly sweet Gilligan, was a comic genius. Alan Hale Jr., who embodied the teddy bearish Skipper, was a wonderful man. I never saw him angry.” She also adored Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer. Russell Johnson wrote the foreword for one of her books. The only member of the cast she hasn’t had contact with was Tina Louise.

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In the original Gilligan’s Island theme song, Mary Ann and the Professor were not mentioned. They were referred to as “the rest” and then later the lyrics became “the Professor and Mary Ann.” Wells has mentioned in several articles that Bob Denver was the one that got the change made.

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Wells embraces her character and people respond in a positive way. People who grew up watching the show see her as friendly and unassuming. Like Barbara Eden and others who suffered from typecasting, she sees her time as Mary Ann in a positive view: “Mary Ann has been such a big part of my life, it’s really impossible to get away from it. But why would I want to? Everywhere in the world that I go, I am greeted with love. . . I created a character that meant something to some people and it has lasted.”

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However, Wells admits that most of the cast suffered from stereotyped views of their roles on the show. She worked hard to continue acting, performing in more than 66 theatrical productions, as well as countless voice-overs and commercials.

She had married Larry Rosen in 1962, but they divorced the same year her role as Mary Ann ended.

After the demise of Gilligan, she received other roles, appearing in 24 shows from 1967-2018, but in many of them she played Mary Ann, not a character like Mary Ann, but the actual Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island.

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In 1998, she opened the Dawn Wells Film Actors Boot Camp in Idaho. She also designed a line of clothing for physically challenged people, “Wishing Wells Collections” and launched a beauty line, “Classic Beauty.” She also wrote two books, a cookbook from the show and A Guide to Life: What Would Mary Ann Do?

Dawn Wells has taken her role of Mary Ann and let it be part of her without limiting herself. She willingly accepts the character as part of herself, but she has continued to grow and expand her career. I think when Mary Ann was rescued from the island, she probably had a very similar career.

Tina Louise

Tina Louise was born in New York City in 1934. Like Wells, her parents also divorced when she was quite young. She first appeared on Broadway in “Li’l Abner” while a teenager. She was given good reviews and was offered a role in her first movie, God’s Little Acre in 1958. She then began studying with Lee Strasberg.

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During this time, she made one album, “It’s Time for Tina,” a collection of classics from composers such as George Gershwin, Jule Styne and Cole Porter.

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After making several movies, she returned to Broadway, starring with Carol Burnett in “Fade In, Fade Out.” Like Dawn Wells, Louise accepted a number of roles on television in the early 1960s, also many westerns.

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Tina left the Broadway show to take the part of Ginger Grant on Gilligan’s Island.  Surprisingly, she was not the first choice and replaced Kit Smythe who was cast in the pilot. Unlike Wells, she did not appear to enjoy her time with the show. Many articles have been written about her dissatisfaction with the fact that she thought she would be the star of the show instead of one of seven more equal cast members. The other cast members describe her as professional but unhappy. She distanced herself from the show as soon as it ended, not participating in future projects.

Also, like Wells, Tina married but divorced after five years.

Louise made quite a few movies after her time on Gilligan and continued to work in television, appearing on 27 different series including Bonanza, Love American Style, Kojak, Marcus Welby, and The Love Boat.

Again, like Dawn Wells, Tina Louise has expanded her acting career into other venues. In 2005 she got a lot of money for 80 lines of voice-over work for a gaming machine, MegaJackpots which were located in casinos across the country.

She also penned three books so far, Sunday: A Memoir in 1997 and two childrens’ books, When I Grow Up in 2007 and What Does a Bee Do? in 2009. She has also spent time volunteering in literacy projects and providing tutoring for school children.

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Louise has also discovered a love of abstract painting and has exhibited her work around New York, recently at the Patterson Museum of Art.

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Unlike Dawn Wells, Tina Louise did not embody her character of Ginger but has instead refused to be associated with the show and her role. Both actresses went on to forge new careers for themselves and became successful in various fields. It’s too bad that they are the only remaining crew members left from the show and do not get along. As you can see from comparing their lives, they do have quite a bit in common, and their acting journeys have been similar. They have said they do not dislike each other; they just never formed a deep friendship.

5 thoughts on “Mary Ann vs Ginger: Dawn Wells and Tina Louise

  1. I saw “God’s Little Acre” a few years ago. It’s a good movie, and also controversial. It stars Robert Ryan but is loaded with future TV stars: Tina Louise, Michael Landon, Buddy Hackett, Jack Lord, Vic Morrow.

    “Palm Springs Weekend” is also fun, if you like beach movies. I never knew “Mary Ann” was in it… I guess I’m a “Ginger” guy at heart!

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  2. Struggling with being stereotyped in your most famous role seems to be a common issue for prominent actors. However, hers seems to be especially true since she continued to play that exact role on other shows. It is nice to see both of them continue to build on their careers after the show.

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    • I think Henry Winkler was probably the hardest hit by stereotyping. It’s tough that someone acts well enough to be a character and then is punished for that. Some people luck out. Ed O’Neill certainly played different people in Married With Children and Modern Family. Mary Tyler Moore also moved from Laura Petrie to Mary Richards.

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