As a young actress in Hollywood, Dawn Wells auditioned for a role in Gilligan's Island — a sitcom that seemingly showed little promise.
"I was actually the second girl to be on it," Wells told PEOPLE in May 2018. "There was another gal in the pilot, and it didn’t work. She didn’t have a persona."
"Mary Ann was originally going to be a secretary named Bunny who worked at a talent agency in Los Angeles," she said with a laugh. "Can you imagine? They needed someone innocent and optimistic, so they changed her to a farm girl."
Wells, who died on Tuesday at age 82 of causes related to COVID-19, was one of dozens of actresses to audition for the role of Mary Ann Summers — but she said that her casting came down to hair color.
"They weren’t sure if they wanted a blonde or a brunette, and some of it depended on who Ginger was going to be," she recalled. "The character of Ginger was originally a teacher, so when they were changing her to a movie star, they were thinking Marilyn Monroe. So they had a blonde in mind for her. But then Tina Louise auditioned and she nailed it, so Ginger was named Ginger and they needed a blonde or a brunette."
"The show was black and white at the time, and Ginger had light red hair, so a brunette would stand out more in black and white film," she explained. "And that’s how they ended up with little ol' me!"
Wells played Mary Ann for 98 episodes over the show's 3-season run. Despite the popularity of the show in future generations, she said she only received small payments for the first five times the episodes aired. "Back then, a show had to go 100 episodes to go into syndication, and Gilligan went 98," she said. "We were just two episodes shy of a syndication package. But then also the first 30 or so were in black and white. So I never had any idea that it was going to go on forever!"
Reflecting on the show, Wells told PEOPLE that she had no regrets.
"But no, I’ve never regretted my time on the show," she said. "It was wonderful. I loved going to work, and I loved being able to be that character."
And Wells said that the cast and crew got along like family.
"That’s one thing about our show: we were all very kind to each other," she said. "Of course the Skipper would smack Gilligan over the head with his hat … but it was slapstick. They loved each other."
"And all of us [actors] loved each other," she concluded. "We didn’t call each other bad names. We were family. We were in this together."
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