(RNS) — Della Reese, a onetime gospel singer and groundbreaking African-American talk show host later known for her lead role in the TV series “Touched by an Angel,” has died at age 86.
She died on Sunday (Nov. 19), according to a statement from her series co-star Roma Downey, who shared it with People magazine.
“Heaven has a brand new angel,” Downey said on Instagram.
Reese, a Detroit native, started touring as a backup singer to Mahalia Jackson when she was 13. She later added secular performances to her repertoire. Her single “Don’t You Know”— based on a waltz from the opera “La Boheme” — became a million-seller on RCA Records in 1959.
After acting in situation comedies, in the 1990s Reese began the role in “Touched by an Angel” of Tess, the senior seraph on the CBS drama, who advised Monica, her apprentice-angel played by Downey.
Downey took to social media earlier this month to describe a gathering with friends and family at Reese’s home when her acting colleague was suffering from multiple health problems.
“It’s a Full House over here!! We have a whole lotta love going on at Dellas,” Downey wrote on Instagram on Nov. 13. “All her friends and family are coming to love and honor her ..... that plus the Holy Spirit is in the house! So it’s just a grand huge love celebration for our wonderful Miss Della Reese.”
When Reese wasn’t taping the show, which aired from 1994 to 2003, she was leading a Los Angeles church called Understanding Principles for Better Living.
Asked how she juggled both roles at the time, she had a straightforward answer.
“God,” she declared during an RNS interview before a 1996 worship service. “They're both ministries.”
She was greeted by a rousing chorus of “Good morning, Reverend Della,” by her congregation of 175 that was housed in a Masonic temple hall just south of Hollywood. It is affiliated with New Thought, a religious movement that draws on Christianity, metaphysics, and positive thinking.
The church's celebrity connections stretched beyond Reese, with back-up singers for Smokey Robinson singing the 1979 disco classic “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” and actress Linda Gray, who played Sue Ellen Ewing (J.R.'s wife) on "Dallas," sitting among the worshippers during the 1996 service.
“We have so few female role models in life that ... more than an actor or singer, she's a true role model for me,” Gray said of Reese at the time. “She speaks the truth. She comes from her heart.”
The actress, also known as the Rev. Della Reese Lett, was married to producer Franklin Thomas Lett, who survives her, for more than 35 years.
She later played a landlady on the 1970s TV series “Chico and the Man” and the wife of a mailman portrayed by actor Redd Foxx on the 1990s series “The Royal Family.” Two years later, with “Touched by an Angel,” Reese “brought God into primetime television,” wrote Bil Carpenter, author of “Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia.”
The actress sang the theme song “Walk With You” on “Angel,” and on its soundtrack CD that featured artists Amy Grant and Faith Hill and reached No. 1 on the chart for contemporary Christian music, Carpenter said.
In an essay in the book “Touched by an Angel: Stories from the Hit Television Series,” Reese said she had decided to return to the concert circuit and leave television behind when she was approached in her 60s about the series. “I sensed God saying: ‘Do this for Me and you can retire afterwards.’”
The actress didn’t completely retire after the show’s run. She continued her music career and wrote the 2012 book “Metaphysically Speaking: The Bible is the greatest How-To book ever written.”
In the 1996 interview, Reese told RNS that she felt she had been influenced in real life by angels and she credited her progression from the slums of her hometown of Detroit to show business and the ministry to “the grace of God.”
“I have along the way not known what to do when frantic, stressed and duressed, and somebody that I did not necessarily know came into my life, stayed 15 minutes, straightened out the situation and split,” she said.
Reese called an aneurysm she suffered in 1979 a life-changing experience that increased her courage and her faith in God: “My brain exploding was one of the best things that happened to me.”
She also called the Rev. Johnnie Colemon, founder of the Christ Universal Temple in Chicago, a key influence in her embrace of the New Thought philosophy.
“She was the first person that I had heard speak aloud what I believed inside," recalled Reese, a former Baptist who began singing in church at age 6.
Colemon, who started what became a megachurch in 1956, died in 2014.
Reese was ordained in the 1980s and held classes in her home for several years before establishing her own congregation, which was affiliated with Colemon’s Universal Foundation for Better Living Inc., in 1989. Despite her “Touched by an Angel” schedule, she traveled to Chicago for continuing education required by Colemon’s foundation.
Reese, in the RNS interview, accurately predicted that the show would last seven more years. She said it demonstrated that greed, drugs and technology were not the solutions to life.
“We've tried everything and it didn't work. And finally we are all as a human race coming to the understanding that there has to be something deeper than that,” she said. “That's what I think people come to the show and the ministry for.”