Extended Interview With Dawn Wells

On April 29, notable Stephens College alumna Dawn Wells stopped by her alma mater to talk about her famous role with current students. Over coffee, the television icon discussed Mary Ann, Stephens and 50 years of “Gilligan’s Island.”

It’s an obvious question, but: Why are you here at Stephens?

I’m making a documentary, and I’m also writing a book. In September of 2014, “Gilligan’s Island” will be continuously on air for 50 years. It’s 50 years of Mary Ann, and the influence of Mary Ann is astounding to me. As an actress, there are probably other roles that I would say were much harder to do or challenged me so much more, but nowhere would I have had the influence that this character has had. She’s loved all over the world. It’s not Dawn Wells; it’s the character.

The character of Mary Ann is so iconic. How was she created?

Mary Ann came from Kansas, that’s all we really know about her. Was she a farmer? Was she a secretary? It was never really defined. I think the essence of what I brought Mary Ann was Dawn, and I think Mary Ann was born at Stephens. I do. I think so. I think that independence, femininity — still knows how to be a lady, still knows what is proper — I think there’s a sense of self that Stephens gives you, and I think that’s Mary Ann. I think she believes what she believes in, and I think she believes in being fair.

Why do you think people love the character you created so much?

Mary Ann is the girl you could trust. Mary Ann could’ve been your sister. Mary Ann would’ve been the girl you married. And I mean, we know the men like Mary Ann because she was in shorts for one thing, at least the director was smart enough to do that, but Mary Ann would’ve gone to the prom with you. To these men I met who were fighting wars or leading the country or whatever, the core of her made a difference. And sitting back, looking at it as an actress, I say, “You know, I could’ve done “Lion in Winter” or some wonderful play that knocks your socks off as an actress, but it wouldn’t have had the influence that this girl had.” Now that I can sit back and look at it, you know it. She’s a different kind of character.

What did the students at Stephens today say about your character?

I was talking to the girls here and asked, “Is there a Mary Ann today? Do you think there’s a Mary Ann today? Do you want to be a Mary Ann today?” I had one girl from Florida; she was just wonderful and she said, “Yes, I like Mary Ann. Today there’s too many Gingers.” Where is that core value? Where is that moral code that I think Mary Ann had? She wasn’t a symp. She was strong in her optimism, she was fair. They recognized that.

And I think I was interviewing a couple of girls today about the character. One girl was very profound and said, “We need the Mary Ann; we need to have fairness, we need to have sensibility.” And another girl said, “Well, Mary Ann wouldn’t work today at all. Not a bit. You have to be aggressive; you have go get what you want.” And I thought that was so interesting — two girls, right here, and one girl said it wouldn’t work. 80 percent of the women today would say it worked. Is there a Mary Ann today? Is there a Mary Ann morally? This whole sexual revolution thing. And yet sitting at lunch with these girls I’d say, “Yeah, we’re in pretty good shape.” These six girls sitting here, I know whatever you’re going to do, you’re going to do it right, you’re going to do it well.

Has “Gilligans Island” changed as the world around it has?

The show was seven misfits trying to get together and live together. Well, that’s what the world is now. All these races, all these nationalities, all these mixed families, all trying to get together, and they’re having a hard time. I don’t know if “Gilligan’s Island” would go today; you might have different characters representing the same things. But there’s a reason why it’s never been off the air since 1964. We’re in 35 languages all over the world. I can be in Beijing and they go “Mary Ann, Mary Ann!” The show’s creator was smart enough to not have any cars or clothes to tell you when it was. There’s not a ’56 Chevy in the driveway.

You were a student in Columbia more than five decade ago. What was the city like back then?

It was small but fun.