When Gilligan's Island premiered in 1964, the network was worried about two things.
"There were network censors back on those days, and they were really strict," Dawn Wells told PEOPLE in 2018. "They had to make sure that Ginger wasn’t showing too much cleavage and that I wasn’t showing too much belly button."
Some of the problem was the producer's decision to have Wells — 26 at the time — tie her gingham shirt into a knot to expose her midriff. "Even back then, sex sells," laughed Wells, who played Mary Ann Summers on the CBS family comedy.
"So they decided to have me tie up my shirt," said Wells. "But then my belly button was an issue, so my shorts were pulled up to cover my navel."
The actress, who died on Tuesday at age 82 of causes related to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), told PEOPLE that the censors would come to filmings to ensure that the wardrobes were decent.
"I was a young girl on my first big network acting gig," she said with a laugh, "and there were these men — the censors were all men at the time — and they were looking at my torso!"
But despite the men looking at her body, Wells told PEOPLE that she took it all in stride.
"I guess I felt a little objectified, but not really," she said. "[Producer] Sherwood [Schwartz] would never have let me be taken advantage of like that. He was like a father. Such a good man. Such a family man. Everyone’s talking about '#MeToo' now, and I can say that I never had to deal with that on the set of Gilligan. People were so kind, so respectful. It was ahead of its time."
Wells told PEOPLE that despite the "silliness" of the show, she loved her experience — and thought that the critics misunderstood the sitcom.
"I understood the script," she explained. "It was silly. It was juvenile. It was slapstick. But I saw the deeper message right away, and I was in my 20s at the time. I understood that these were seven distinct people coming together from seven different worlds, and they were able to build huts and find food and take care of all the chores. They became a society and a family. They just couldn’t find a way off that silly island!"
After the show was cancelled, Wells said she was allowed to take some souvenirs from the set.
"I kept some of my wardrobe," she admitted, "but I haven’t been able to fit into it for years. You know who can fit into her clothes from back then? Barbara Eden. She can still wear her I Dream of Jeannie outfit. Not me! Those shorts are too tight now!"
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