Dawn Wells, Reno native and star on the ’60s sitcom Gilligan’s Island, has died from COVID-19 complications. She was 82.
Wells was a fourth generation Nevadan who graduated from Reno High School. Her great-great grandfather drove stagecoach from Reno to Virginia City—and her grandmother played piano at Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City at age 9.
According to a statement released on social media by her publicist, Harlan Boll, Wells died peacefully at a living facility in Los Angeles.
Before taking on the role of sweet and wholesome Mary Ann Summers on Gilligan’s Island, Wells was a local beauty queen. In 1959, as Miss Nevada, she competed in the Miss America pageant.
Late Reno journalist Dennis Myers, who was close friends with Wells, wrote of her in the Reno News & Review: “Before 1964 she appeared in at least 16 television series, such as The Detectives and Ripcord, and a couple of movies, almost always in dramatic roles, but Gilligan’s Island nearly arrested her serious acting career while turning her into an icon and a subject of the eternal ‘Mary Ann or Ginger?’ game.”
Wells was sometimes Myers’ plus-one at company Christmas parties, big events or simple dinner out on the town. She attended his memorial service alongside several hundred other Renoites in September of 2019.
There was much more to Wells than her roles as beauty queen and famed actor. She was also an acting teacher and a motivational speaker—as well as someone who dedicated time to charitable causes.
For years, she operated Wishing Wells Collections, a business that specialized in making clothing for people with limited mobility. She was also the founder of the Idaho Film and Television Institute, a nonprofit educational organization with “a vision of education, technical training and economic development in Southeastern Idaho.” And she lent support to the Denver Foundation—a charity chaired by Dreama Denver, widow of Wells’ Gilligan’s Island co-star Bob Denver, that raises funds for disabled and disadvantaged people in West Virginia.
Wells also served for a time as chair of the Terry Lee Wells Foundation — focusing on women and children in Northern Nevada. Donations in her name to the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum are encouraged for those who are able. Dawn was cousins with Terry Lee Wells.
Wells posted a holiday message to her Facebook page on Christmas Eve, writing, “Keep your heart light and share a few laughs and conversation with someone near and far… Please find joy amidst the pandemic and be cognizant of our overwhelmed first responders. Let’s not let our actions make a bigger burden for them. I am thankful and in awe of the dedication of our health care professionals.”