Gilligan’s Island is one of the most fondly remembered and iconic television sitcoms of the 1960s. One obvious thing that makes for a decent TV show is engaging and witty screenwriting, but audiences also have to be able to connect to a show’s cast if they’re expected to keep coming back for more.
Fortunately, this was one area that Gilligan’s Island excelled. The campy series featured a colorful cast of characters including the likes of Gilligan, the Skipper, Thurston Howell III, Ginger Grant, and Mary Ann Summers.
Actress Dawn Wells, who portrayed Mary Ann, gave her classic girl-next-door role precisely the right sprinkling of sweetness it needed to keep fans tuning back in week after week to catch up on the ongoing exploits and hijinks of the survivors of the SS Minnow shipwreck.
Wells remained a fan-favorite cast member of Gilligan’s Island throughout the series’ three season run. After the show went off the air in 1967, she worked primarily in theater, appearing in over 60 productions, although she did occasionally also make cameo appearances in other shows – more often than not, reprising her role as Mary Ann.
Sadly, Wells passed away on December 30, 2020 at the age of 82. At the time of her death, she was the second to last surviving Gilligan’s Island cast member. The only remaining Gilligan alum is 88-year-old actress Tina Louise, who as you may know, portrayed Ginger Grant.
While Wells was considered to be an iconic television veteran who was widely respected by her peers, fans, and critics, she ended up dying penniless and alone. Keep watching to find out why
Facts Verse Presents: The Sad Reasons Dawn Wells Died with No Money and No Family
She Was An Only Child
Dawn Wells was born on the 18th of October, 1938, in Reno, Nevada. She grew up in that general area and attended Reno High. Her parents, Evelyn and Joe, were always very supportive of her. Joe worked at a local shipping company called Wells Cargo – no relation to Wells Fargo – and Evelyn was a homemaker focused primarily on raising little Dawn.
Wells didn’t have any siblings, but being the bubbly ball of joy she always was, she did have a lot of neighborhood friends to hang out with. After graduating from High School, Wells attended Stephens College out east in Columbia, Missouri, majoring in chemistry.
Eventually, she transferred to the University of Washington in Seatle, where she wound up graduating with a degree in theater arts and design in 1960.
After being crowned Miss Nevada in 1959, Wells represented her state in the 1960 Miss America Pageant held in Atlantic City.
Well’s Hollywood Debut
Competing in that Miss America pageant helped Wells to gain a bit of attention out in Hollywood. She clearly had the right look to be a star, and since she had studied theater in college, she was a prime candidate to be cast in at least minor roles.
She made her debut screen appearance on ABC’s drama series The Roaring 20s in 1960. In 1964, she was cast in her first big screen role appearing in the John Rich-directed drama The New Interns.
Those two early roles led Wells to land several minor parts in series like The Joey Bishop Show, Cheyenne, Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and Bonanza. Throughout her television career, Wells would go on to guest star in dozens of other popular series like Wagon Train, Laramie, The FBI, The Love Boat, Alf, and Roseanne.
Her most notable role, however, was unsurprisingly that of Marry Ann on Gilligan’s Island. If she hadn’t appeared in that offering, regardless of the fact that it wasn’t initially well received or highly rated in the Nielsen ratings, she likely would have faded away into obscurity after her youthful beauty had faded.
Gilligan Didn’t Make Her Rich
Dawn Well’s signature role of Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island came her way in 1964. She would later revive the character for follow-up reunion specials and made-for-TV films like The Castaways on Gilligan’s Island, Rescue from Gilligan’s Island, and The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island – and yes, before you ask, that last one was just as ridiculous as it sounds. But then again, Gilligan’s Island was never really trying to pass itself off as peak cinema.
Gilligan’s Island ran for 98 episodes, which happens to be just two shy of the traditional 100-episode threshold required for a series to enter into syndication. Since this precedent had yet to be established, however, the series ended up entering into syndication anyway. And really, it’s probably more popular today than it ever was during it’s first run. Ask any random person off the street whether they’ve seen an episode before, and they’ll likely – and enthusiastically – say yes.
All the other actors who signed contracts with Sherwood Schwartz and company only were guaranteed a pre-determined paycheck for each episode, plus residuals for the first five repeats of each episode. Considering that the show wasn’t taken all that seriously by CBS during it’s initial run, no one but the network and Schwartz really made bank off of if it. The cast members weren’t exactly fleeced or anything like that, but their salaries were far lower than you might expect. Today, it’s commonly expected for actors in popular shows to essentially be set for life financially, but evidently, it wasn’t like that back in the mid-20th century.
Fortunately, Dawn Well’s husband at the time, talent agent Larry Rossen, had the smarts to convince her to ask for an amendment to the residual clause in her contract that ensured that she would continue to earn residual payments for all future re-runs.
The producers of Gilligan’s Island never thought that the show would end up becoming as popular as it did, and their minds probably would have been blown if you were to have told them that it would still be airing daily in hundreds of markets around the globe more than half a century later.
Before you assume that Dawn Wells, with the help of Larry Rosen, ended up spending the rest of her life cashing in massive paychecks and living a life of lavish luxury, it needs to be said that she wound up seriously struggling with her finances in her later years regardless of Rosen’s best efforts.
Health Issues Took A Major Toll
Wells was once quoted as saying that her time playing Mary Ann was one of the ‘most enjoyable experiences’ of her life. In a 2020 interview, she elaborated on why she felt like Gilligan’s Island was such a net positive experience for her by pointing out how much she appreciated her character’s moral compass. Wells especially appreciated how Mary Ann always stood up for herself and stuck to her guns. Instead of merely being eye candy – which she undoubtedly still was – she was also depicted as being strong, empowered, and reasonably intelligent.
Wells also appreciated how clean, moralistic, and fair the show was compared to the bulk of offerings that are on the tube these days. Beyond those points, Wells further explained that she and her fellow cast mates got along well, treated each other with respect, and looked out for each other.
Despite these sentiments, Wells did run into significant financial problems in her later years. Rosen and Wells’s relationship eventually soured, and they got divorced in 1967.
Dawn never ended up remarrying or having any children. Because of this, she lacked familial support when her health inevitably began to decline.
After suffering a fall in 2018, a GoFundMe was set up by Wells’ hairstylist and friend, Dugg Kirkpatrick, to help her cope with her financial ills. Even though she was the only Gilligan cast member to receive long-term residuals, that money was still not enough to support her post-retirement.
It’s also worth noting that even though she did still receive some cash in the years that ensued after Gilligan’s cancellation, the majority of onlione reports on these payments have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, Snopes claims that the entire notion that she received even a dime is thoroughly false. There is, however, some evidence that appears to suggest the opposite, but even so, it’s not like she was swimming in coin.
It’s beautiful that Wells fans were able to come out and support her during her time of need – especially since she didn’t have a family to fall back on – but that still wasn’t enough to keep her afloat. As we all know, living in Los Angeles is quite expensive. It’s estimated that by the end of her life, Wells’ net worth was less than $50,000. Even that is probably being generous.
According to Wells’ GoFundMe page, she needed $194,000 to alleviate penalties being demanded by the IRS. Resulting from that aforementioned fall, Wells also suffered from a broken knee and required a high-risk surgery.
The saddest quote that we found when researching this video came from 2018 when Wells lamented how she never thought she would find herself in such a dire financial situation.
“I thought I was taking all the proper steps to ensure my golden years, but now here I am, no family, no husband, no children and no money”
With no funds or assets to speak of, Wells was unable to move into an assisted living facility that she desperately needed. To make matters worse. in June 2020, Wells’ longtime manager revealed via court documents that she was suffering from severe dementia. If it weren’t for the help of her fans and friends who raised more than $200,000 to aid her, Wells would likely have ended up spending the remaining years of her life on the streets; broke, destitute, and utterly defeated.
Tragically, Dawn’s name ended up being added to tfhe long list of victims who lost their lives to the COVID-19 pandemic when she passed away at the age of 82 on December 30, 2020. Even more grim is the fact that the week before she died, Wells had prerecorded a Happy New Year video that was meant to be released on the holiday.
It’s absolutely heartbreaking to learn just how bad off Dawn Wells was financially speaking in her final days. Even if she was receiving some residuals still from Gilligan’s Island, there is no reason why a highly celebrated, talented, and beloved star such as herself should have ended up in such a bad way. Honestly, Hollywood should feel ashamed of themselves. We’re looking at you Sherwood!
Did you know that Dawn Wells was completely broke and suffering from dementia before dying of COVID in 2020, and do you think that Hollywood should do a better job supporting it’s aging stars when they fall into financial trouble? Let us know in the comments, and as always, thanks for watching.