‘Gilligan’s Island’: Dawn Wells Debunked the Legend Of Her Rerun Earnings

Landing a lead role on a popular TV show like Seinfeld, Friends, or The Big Bang Theory has its perks. Not only did these famous sitcom actors make over $1 million per episode, but they also took into another few million after the shows ended.

Royalties and residual deals earned from when the show goes into syndication can be astronomical. Throw in DVD sales and video streaming, and actors can stash away a pretty nice nest egg when their show hits the rerun stage.

Earning big money from syndication wasn’t always the case. Early day television shows like Gilligan’s Island or The Brady Bunch have been airing reruns for decades, but the stars haven’t seen anything close to what modern-day actors receive.

For a long time, there were rumors in Hollywood circles that Dawn Wells, who played the lovable character of Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island, received residual payments for syndicated airings of the show. Many people believed she was the only cast member to receive these payments.

The cast of 'Gilligan's Island'
The cast of ‘Gilligan’s Island’ | CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

‘Gilligan’s Island’ was a surprise success

It’s been more than 50 years since the Skipper shipwrecked the S.S. Minnow on Gilligan’s IslandThe first episode aired in September 1964.

The CBS network president at the time, James Aubrey, didn’t like the concept of the show and had to be persuaded by producer Sherwood Schwartz to let it air. Aubrey liked the characters but didn’t think a continuous storyline of them marooned on a desert island would work. He had doubts the show would make it past the first season.

According to Collider, Schwartz made a deal with CBS, saying that if viewers didn’t like the premise and ratings declined, he would immediately have the castaways rescued. Much to the surprise of critics, audiences loved the show, and it enjoyed a three-season run on network television.

In April 1967, Gilligan’s Island was canceled, its time slot replaced by Gunsmoke. Despite being off the air, fans still watched the iconic series for many years in syndication. 

Was Mary Ann the only person to receive money from reruns?

RELATED: ‘Gilligan’s Island’: Tina Louise Had a Complicated Relationship With the Show

In the early ’60s, television actors received a standard contract for a flat rate for every episode in which they performed. They also would receive a residual payment for the first five reruns of that episode. After the fifth episode aired, they wouldn’t see any more money.

According to legend, the entire cast of Gilligan’s Island signed the traditional contract, except for Wells. The popular girl next door had a business-savvy husband, Larry Rosen, who also happened to be her talent agent. He advised Wells to request an amendment to the residual clause, and producers agreed to her terms, never thinking the series would remain in syndication for almost 60 years.

Rumors persisted over the years that because of this contract amendment, Wells was the only cast member to continue receiving money from rerun episodes. Wells has since put an end to the long-running myth.

How much did Dawn Wells make from ‘Gilligan’s Island’?

According to IBT Times, the Gilligan’s Island cast “missed the boat” when it came to syndication royalties.

The beloved farm girl from Kansas told the Vancouver Sun, “The Gilligan’s Island crew made virtually ‘nothing,’ or the equivalent of $5,000 a week in today’s dollars.” She continued by saying that they didn’t receive “a dime” in royalties and said, “I think we got paid…maybe we made $50,000 [per season], I don’t know,” according to Snopes.

Although Thurston Howell III portrayed a millionaire, Lovey was the one with real money. Natalie Schafer, who played Mrs. Howell, was a wealthy Beverly Hills real estate investor, and she died a real-life millionaire. While battling breast cancer, Wells took care of her friend, and according to Mental Floss, she was left a tidy sum when Schafer passed. 

At the age of 80, when Wells became sick herself, her longtime hairdresser set up a GoFundMe account to help her pay staggering medical bills and outstanding tax debt. He claimed that she lost her life savings during the banking crash. More than 5,000 fans donated $198,000 to help Wells recover from her medical and financial losses.

In the end, the Professor’s sidekick never received as much money as people thought in syndication. The real winner was the late Schwartz, who reportedly earned $90 million in residual payments.