‘Gilligan’s Island’ Star Dawn Wells Was ‘Swimming in Debt’ Years Before Her Death, Due in Part To a Health Scare

Actor Dawn Wells, best known for her role in the hit CBS sitcom Gilligan’s Island, died in December 2020. While she didn’t act in any popular series in her last years, she did make headlines due to financial issues not long before her death. Learn what happened when Wells’ finances became public knowledge.

Dawn Wells portrayed Mary Ann in ‘Gilligan’s Island’

(L-R): Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer, Dawn Wells (seated), Tina Louise, Bob Denver, Alan Hale Jr., and Russell Johnson of ‘Gilligan’s Island’ |Bettmann / Contributor

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Wells began acting in the early 1960s, after graduating from college. Following a handful of one-off and recurring appearances on series such as 77 Sunset StripBonanza, and It’s a Man’s World, she landed the role of Mary Ann Summers, the quintessential girl-next-door, on Gilligan’s Island.

Wells portrayed the sweet and wholesome character throughout the sitcom’s three seasons, from 1964-1967. The series depicts a group of castaways stranded on a Hawaiian island after they’re shipwrecked. Others include a pair of millionaires, a movie star, the titular goofy first mate and his captain, and a professor.

She went on to act in a select few projects

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Dawn Wells visits Hallmark Channel’s ‘Home & Family’ at Universal Studios Hollywood on September 30, 2019, in Universal City, California. | Paul Archuleta/Getty Images

Post-Gilligan’s Island, Wells spent most of her time in the theater. When she did return to the screen, it was mostly in connection with the series. Wells returned for multiple Gilligan’s Island TV movies, such as The Castaways on Gilligan’s Island. And she guest-starred in TV shows such as ALF and Baywatch as her character.

Aside from those projects, Wells starred in a handful of films in the 1970s, including The Town That Dreaded Sundown and Return to Boggy Town. Her 21st-century roles were limited to appearances on The Man Show and RuPaul’s Drag Race (as herself) and an episode of the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful.

Wells died of COVID-19 complications in December 2020

Of the actors who appeared on the hit series, Wells was among the last remaining alive in 2020. However, on December 30, 2020, her publicist revealed that she died of “causes related to COVID-19,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Wells was 82 at the time of her death.

The publication noted her love of Gilligan’s Island and the fans who made her famous. “The angelic Wells embraced the show’s enduring popularity and was grateful to the fans who, for years, sometimes obsessively, expressed their affinity for her and the character she played,” it wrote.

The ‘Gilligan’s Island’ star got help from fans in 2018

Wells’s health has been a concern before. In 2018, a friend started a GoFundMe for her after “Taxes, medical [expenses], and bills” led to her debt. “It is scary,” she said of her situation at the time. “If you don’t have a family or a husband or anybody that’s got a bankroll for you, it’s expensive.”

Wells owed approximately $200,000 to the IRS. She was hospitalized for months due to an infection. However, “I am not dead broke,” she said. “There are people out there trying to feed their children. And somebody says, ‘go fund Dawn.’ I can handle it! I can get a job and go to work.” She adds that she was “very angry” her friend took that action.

Regardless, the actor was grateful for the help she received from those who loved her on Gilligan’s Island. “Thank you for caring,” Wells told her fans who donated. “I’m aghast, and I’m appreciative.”