As the title suggests, What Would Mary Ann Do?, by Dawn Wells with Steve Stinson, is a book of advice. Wells, who played the wholesome, naïve Mary Ann in the classic 1960s sitcom Gilligan’s Island, subtitled the book A Good Girl’s Guide To Life, and it’s a subtitle that refers to both Wells and Mary Ann. Wells offers suggestions for living through the eyes of the actress as well as the character. The book also is full of photos from Wells’ acting career.
I spoke with Wells shortly before the book’s September publication date.
What’s the target audience for What Would Mary Ann Do? I probably raised a generation that are parents of teenagers now, and the attraction to Mary Ann has been the wholesomeness, the honesty, the pitching in and helping. (She represents) the kind of values that seem to be going out the window. It’s hard, as a parent, to corral the teenagers. I don’t have children, but I can see (the teen years are a) difficult time. I have men say to me, “I married a Mary Ann,” or “I want to raise a Mary Ann.” I thought, “There’s something in this character, in this silly little show, that has more value than we think.”
Could you see parlaying this book into a manners/advice column? It’s very interesting that you say that. I had an experience at a barbecue/fundraiser last year. This girl, probably 13 or 14, sat down next to me for an autograph while I was signing them for other people. I had never seen a child so beautiful. One of those faces that just takes your breath away. I said to her, “I’m going to tell you something,” and her mother was standing there, and I said, “Say no.” She said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Because of how you look, you are going to be asked so many things that you don’t understand. Boys can’t help themselves, etc. Start out with ‘no.’” We started to laugh about it. I don’t know that young people would read (an advice column), but they might. That’s kind of a cute idea. I have to roll it around in my brain.
In the book you write about your idea for the British-style red phone booths to be used as cellphone stations. I think it’s sheer brilliance. I get so tired of being in a room and everybody’s talking to somebody else (on their phones). You can’t help but overhear. Privacy is gone. I think we all need private time and private moments. I think it would be nice if you had to go into a booth to have your conversation. We’re all invaded by all of that. Where is our privacy? Where are our own quiet thoughts?
In the book you write about “the lesson of seven castaways” — about how they made the island a “safe haven for humanity,” which is especially applicable today, with the devastation in Gaza and Ferguson, Missouri. What would it take for everyone to coexist in peace and harmony? I’m not sure it’s possible. We are observing it now, firsthand. I get tears in my eyes half the time. Remember the peace marches years ago? Martin Luther King and all that. We in Nevada felt like we had something to do with Montgomery, Alabama. Now, can we do something in Gaza? With the people we elect? The people we elect have a huge responsibility. I don’t know where the world is going.
A few days ago, Huffington Post ran a piece titled “11 TV Shows That Defined Your Childhood, Ranked From Worst To Best.” Gilligan’s Island came in at No. 3. What does that ranking mean to you? First of all, I think it would mean an awful lot to the creator (Sherwood Schwartz), who is gone. That he had the vision. Of course, we were bad-rapped: “The worst show ever on television!” “It’ll never last 30 seconds!” CBS didn’t want to put it on the air. Until they showed it to the public — when they had those audiences and it was rated one of the highest ever. I think it was fun and silly at the time. But it sustained because we need it. We need that escape. It’s not Judy Garland tap dancing. It’s more relatable. You saw the camaraderie between these seven misfits trying to get along. I do think Mary Ann was part of the stability. I don’t think that was part of the writers’ vision from the beginning — “Mary Ann’s got to be the peacemaker.” No. The creator had a purity and a childlike vision of life through these seven characters. You loved the Skipper! We didn’t bully Gilligan. With what’s going on today, Gilligan would be thrown off the island.
You also write about Russell Johnson (The Professor), who had a gay son and then became an AIDS advocate when his son became ill. Are you aware of a gay following? I’m very much aware of the gay following and very supportive. I think Mary Ann would’ve been your buddy! I respected Russell so much. It was a tough time. He went out on a limb and he talked about it and the pride he had with (his son) David. That was a big step way back then.
Where do you stand on the subject of same-sex marriage? I’m supportive. I think we are more alike than different. I think we need to embrace who we are today and stop fighting. If there is love around, it’s love, there’s nothing offensive about that.